Keeping Pythons as Pets

Pythons are perhaps one of the most recognisable snakes with famous members in this snake family ranging from the popular Burmese python to the notorious Anaconda.

Many people are fascinated by the thought of a python as a pet and in some respects, they do make very good candidates as they tend to be docile and are non-venomous (although they can still be dangerous due to their constricting powers). Certain species of pythons make very good pets and others make unsuitable pets, mainly because of the huge size they can grow to as adults and the potential danger from their powerful bodies. The most popular and practical choice for a pet is the royal or ‘ball’ python which will only grow to a maximum size of 3-5 feet and are generally easy to tame and handle; so this article will focus mainly on this species.

Choosing Your Python

Royal pythons are also known as ‘ball’ pythons, particularly in the United States, due to their tendency to cur into a tight ball when they feel threatened. In the wild, they are found in Central and Western Africa and will frequent both the ground and trees, usually being most active around dusk and dawn. With proper care, these pythons will have a long lifespan; possibly up to 50 years, although 20-30 years is typical.

Remember to always choose a captive bred python as these will not only be easier to tame and handle but will be in better health, have fewer parasites and be less stressed from capture and transport. Captive-bred snakes may be more expensive and hard to locate but they are well worth the extra effort.

Always check the snake’s body and make sure it is well-rounded, with clean, smooth skin. Check the eyes and vent for any signs of respiratory problems, such as wheezing and bubbles around the nostrils. A vet check as soon as possible after bringing your snake home is vital to assess stool samples and check for parasite load.

Pythons are naturally curious snakes so look for one that is alert and inquisitive and will gently grip your hand or arms when handled. Young snakes can be skittish but they will generally calm down after a bit of handling. It is also a good idea to ask the breeder for a feeding demonstration to make sure that the snake is eating well, as these pythons are notoriously fussy eaters.

Housing Your Python

As they are not generally very active, a smaller enclosure can suffice for your python, for example, a 10-20 gallon tank for juveniles and a 30-gallon tank for adults. However, as with all snakes, the bigger the better as captivity can never compare with the freedom of the wild so try to give the most space that you can afford. Remember that like many other snakes, pythons can be good escape artists so make sure you have a securely fitted top to the tank.

You can use a variety of materials as substrate, such as shredded bark, newsprint or Astroturf. The last is probably the easiest and most popular, with soiled sections easily replaced. Pythons like to have sturdy branches to climb on and at least one dark hiding place where they can feel securely enclosed. A humidity retreat is also a good idea, just a covered container lined with damp sphagnum moss will do. In addition, you will need to provide a water bowl large enough for the python to soak in, something that is especially important during the shedding period.

They will need a daytime temperature gradient ranging from 80 – 85 F (27 – 29 C) and a basking spot of around 90 F (32 C). At night, you can let temperatures fall to 75 F (23 -24 C) as long as an area of 80 F is maintained. Create the temperature gradient using undertank heating pads, supplemented with an incandescent bulb or ceramic heating element for the basking spot. Make sure that the bulb or heating element is screened or well out of the snake’s reach to prevent burns and avoid using ‘hot rocks’ in the tank as these can cause very nasty burns. Unlike many other snakes, pythons do not need a UV light source as they are nocturnal. However, this also means that an incandescent bulb should be replaced by a red, blue or black bulb at night to preserve the light/dark cycle that the python needs.

Feeding Your Python

In one respect, feeding your python will be easy as they only eat mice or small to medium sized rats so there is no need to worry about variety in the diet. In addition, adults normally only need to be fed every week or fortnight, although younger snakes will need to be supplied with pinkie mice every 5-7days. Always use pre-killed prey to prevent injury to the python and using a pair of forceps to dangle the prey in front of the snake will usually trigger feeding interest.

It is a good idea to move the python into a separate enclosure for feeding. Not only will this help with taming the snake, it will also associate the separate enclosure with feeding and thus be less likely to confuse your hand with prey when you reach into its normal enclosure for handling.

As said earlier, these snakes are known for fasting for long periods and as long as body weight is maintained and the python’s condition looks good overall, there is no need to panic. If the fast is causing weight loss or goes on for longer than a couple of months, consult your vet or a reptile expert. You might need to change some aspects of your husbandry or even just try some tricks to tempt your python’s palate, such as dipping the mice in chicken broth.

A Note about Burmese Pythons

While these are often seen, particularly in entertainment, and many are fascinated by their size, these are NOT good pets for the average home. They grow to enormous sizes as adults (20 feet and nearly 100kg) and can be potentially dangerous. Burmese pythons have been involved in several deaths (albeit due to owner complacency, ignorance or error) and once over 8 feet long, at least 2 people are always needed to be present when feeding or handling the snake.

In addition, although they are relatively docile in temperament and easy to tame, they can be aggressive feeders and inflict serious injuries inadvertently. Their huge size and special requirements also means a vast space needed for a custom-built enclosure and hefty expense in upkeep.

Lastly, they can live to over 25 years and their size means that it can be very difficult to re-home them so think very carefully about the commitment needed. Unless you are a reptile specialist with the appropriate environment, do not think about getting a Burmese python as a pet!

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