Handling Your Ball Python & Managing It’s Behavior

Handling

So you just got a ball python—that’s exciting! I bet you can’t wait to start taking your new friend and handling it. After all, you want him/her to get used to you, right? Well, you’re going to have to wait a little bit.

What’s most important is that your ball python settle in and get used to his/her new environment. Imagine being so small and you’ve just been plopped into a new place with different sights and smells you’ve never experienced before… It can be quite frightening at first! You’ll want to let your ball python get comfortable before you start doing handling sessions. This means no handling for at least the first 7-10 days. After that, you’ll want to attempt feeding for the first time. Eating is a good sign that your ball python is settling in. If he/she refuses to eat after 7-10 days, you’ll want to check that your husbandry is exactly where it should be, and then wait another 7-10 days before you attempt feeding again. It is highly recommended that you get your ball python to eat at least two or three times in a row before you start handling sessions. The time your ball python needs to adjust varies from snake to snake. Your ball python will not become “aggressive” or “mean” just because you haven’t handled him/her for a few weeks.

If your ball python has eaten for you a few times, then you can start taking him/her out for handling sessions. Taking your ball python out can be a very rewarding experience. You’ll want your movements to be smooth, slow, and confident when you take your ball python out of its enclosure. If you move too fast or if you hesitate, you might startle him/her!

When you take your ball python out, remember to support the whole body. This means you should try to always use both hands when handling your snake. Remember, its an unnatural feeling for your ball python to be lifted into the air, so be careful and gentle when you do it. Sit down at a table, a bed, or a sofa, and let your ball python explore you. You must supervise his/her actions at all times. Do not let him/her out of your sight, and be wary of your ball python crawling off the edge of a surface.

Your ball python will need to get used to the idea of being handled. Start sessions off short: 5 minutes. Slowly increase the duration of the handling session over several weeks. Do not hurry this process. You want your ball python to associate handling as a relaxing experience. If you jump straight into 30 minute sessions, your snake might think handling is too stressful and won’t enjoy it as much. So take your time, move slow, and give your snake plenty of time to get used to you.

How often to handle: This varies by snake. So long as your ball python continues to eat on schedule, you can handle him/her every day, except during the 48-36hrs after feeding or while your snake is preparing to shed. Remember to go at a pace that both you and your ball python are comfortable with. Start with short, 5-minute sessions, and slowly increase the duration over the course of several weeks. If your snake has recently missed a meal, refrain from handling until he/she begins to eat for you regularly again. Some snakes tolerate handling while preparing to shed, while others don’t. You’ll have to get to know your ball python and work around his/her preferences. 

When NOT to handle: After you ball python eats, you want to give him/her at least 48-36 hours alone to digest. During this period after feeding, it is imperative that you do not handle your snake. 

Important: NEVER put your ball python around your neck. No matter how “tame” you may think your snake is, or how much you trust him/her, putting a snake around your neck can be dangerous. Should anything startle the snake, he/she might coil back and knock you unconscious. Your snake doesn’t even need to make a full circle around your neck to do this. It’s just not worth the risk. 

Bites

Ball pythons are generally resistant to bite, and are usually docile and gentle by nature. One of the reasons ball pythons make great pets is because they typically tolerate handling really well. However, you might one day get bit. This is not something to be afraid of, though. This is just another part of snake-keeping. Baby ball pythons might be especially defensive and have a higher tendency to bite simply because they are young and feel more vulnerable. With careful and consistent handling, baby ball pythons typically outgrow this. An adult ball python might bite if he/she feels threatened. The risk is higher when your snake is in shed or in feeding mode. You might also instigate a bite if you accidentally startle your snake. For example, if you quickly and suddenly lift the hide off your snake and wake him/her up, you might cause your snake to feel the need to defend itself against the sudden intruder (you). 

If you do get bit by your ball python, don’t immediately put him/her away in the enclosure. You don’t want your ball python associate biting with getting to go back to his/her home. Remain relaxed, take deep breaths, and continue handling your snake for a few more minutes. Then put your snake away gently. 

Important: A defensive bite will be a quick bite where your snake instantly releases. A feeding response bite will be a bite where your ball python holds on and might try to coil around the area he/she is biting. A feeding response bite will inevitably hurt more than a defensive bite simply because it is a bite with the intent to hold on. Do NOT yank or franticly pull your snake off; doing so may cause you to pull some teeth out. Just take some deep breaths and relax. Your ball python will eventually realize you are not food, and will let go. 

A bite from a ball python is not as painful as you may expect it to be. Different people tolerate pain differently, so no one can tell you exactly what it’ll feel like. From personal experience, I once had my 2 yr old ball python, Kaybe, bite me in feeding mode. I would consider the pain level as “annoying” more than anything else. I sat down to my computer to distract myself and waited until he let go a few minutes later.

Shedding

Baby/young ball pythons will shed every 4-8 weeks depending on their growth. As they grow, they will shed less often. Snakes grow their whole lives, but the rate at which they grow will decrease with time. As adults, ball pythons might only shed 2-3 times a year. There are a few signs that might give you a hint that your ball python is getting read to shed:

  • Pink/rosy belly
  • Dull skin color
  • Blue/grey, cloudy eyes

During this time, your ball python might be a little defensive. Snakes feel especially vulnerable when they’re getting ready to shed, so you might want to leave your ball python alone until after he/she is done shedding. During this time, you can offer your snake food as you would normally. Some will eat during a shed cycle, others might not. If your ball python refuses to eat during the shed cycle, that is perfectly normal. Wait until your snake has shed, and then offer food.

Note: ball pythons that carry the albino gene and sport red eyes make it tricker to detect when they might be going into shedding. Some albino ball pythons will simply look like they have a duller skin color, but won’t show the other signs.

You’ll want to make sure your ball python sheds in one piece. You should be able to find the eye caps in the shed skin. 

Urates and Feces

How often your ball python eliminates waste can vary by age, feeding schedule, and hydration. You should be familiar with the waste your ball python releases so that you can recognize signs of illness if it looks abnormal. As soon as you see any bodily waste in the enclosure you should remove it. Long term exposure to these can be detrimental to your snake’s health.

Urates: These are yellow-white, semi-hard, and are the snake equivalent of urinating. These are relatively small.

Feces: Usually dark-brown in color, and semi-hard. Ball pythons will typically defecate once every 3-4 meals. With age, your ball python might defecate less frequently.

Keep an eye out for constipation. If either the urates or the feces are runny/watery, or have an abnormal coloration (green feces), you should consult your local reptile vet.

Taking Your Ball Python Outside

Taking your ball python outside is not recommended at all. There is no reason for you to take your ball python to a park or a public area. The safest place for your ball python is inside your home at all times. Should you choose to take your ball python outside, choose a private area such as your personal backyard.

Taking photos of your ball python as it grows up and throughout its lifetime is a wonderful way to record its life. The color of your ball python’s skin will show up best under natural sun light. Taking outdoor photos can be really rewarding, and some ball pythons enjoy getting to spend some time outdoors. 

Important: Only take your ball python outside if the temperature outside is around 78F-89F, and for short periods of time. Be aware of the people around you wherever you take your snake. Snakes already have a bad reputation in the press, and you don’t want to add to that. If onlookers are fearful of your snake’s presence, you can try to educate them, or take your snake elsewhere. If you want to do outdoor photo shoots, it helps if you have a friend with you to help you out.

Warning: If you have an albino snake, you’ll have to take extra care when taking him/her outside. The sun can be damaging to the skin of albino snakes, so you’ll want to avoid direct sunlight. Choose a shady area outside instead. 

You MUST check your ball python for mites and ticks when you go back indoors. Mites and ticks can attach to your ball python and imbed themselves between their scales. You’ll want to give your ball python a really close look, and possibly even a warm bath, before you put them back in their enclosure. Mites can spread especially fast, so if you bring mites back into your home, they might spread to all your other reptiles too. Do not overlook this step; it is crucial to your snake’s well-being.

Aggressive vs Defensive Behavior

Ball pythons are typically docile in nature, but can be defensive if the situation demands it. First you must know the difference between aggressive and defensive behavior. An aggressive ball python will act out randomly and with no instigation or reason. A defensive ball python acts out of insecurity and as a means to protect itself. If your ball python is hissing at you or trying to bite you, step back and examine what you might be doing to provoke it. If you recently brought the snake home, you’ll want to give it more time to settle in. Are you intimidating your snake? Some ball pythons might feel especially vulnerable if you approach from the top; this reminds them of being attacked by a predator and might cause the to react defensively.

Try approaching your snake from the same level as it. Check your movements. You should be moving fluidly, slowly, and confidently around your ball python. If you move to fast or make sudden body movements, you might startle your ball python into feeling threatened. Work slowly and calmly with your snake. With time and patience you will learn how to read its body language better and will improve your handling skills. You’ll also want to check your husbandry and the health of the snake to make sure there are no underlying issues causing the snake to act out or feel especially vulnerable.

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