Reptile Health Care

Boa Constrictors and Pythons

The large constricting snakes are very beautiful creatures that capture the attention of most people whether it is in a positive or negative way. Most of these reptiles will make good pets, although there is the occasional animal that can be quite unreliable and even downright nasty. It is therefore important to choose a snake based on its temperament, in addition to its health and beauty. The size of these snakes varies considerably, ranging from 3 feet (small ball pythons) to 18 feet or more (large female Burmese pythons). Their most rapid growth in body size occurs in the first 2–3 years of life. At around 3 years of age, when sexual maturity is reached, the growth rate gradually slows, but these snakes will continue to grow throughout life. Many can live 20–30 years or more. Pythons originate from Africa and Southern or Southeast Asia, whereas boas are from Mexico, Central America, and South America. Owning a large snake requires responsibility for housing, handling, and feeding. Never allow one of these snakes to form a complete circle around your neck and realize these snakes are not appropriate for children. When out of their housing unit, they must be supervised at all times to prevent escape.

Being a responsible snake owner starts with an escape-proof enclosure. Stacking books on top of the vivarium lid is not adequate. An enclosure with the sliding top or front or a hinged lid and locking mechanism is necessary for housing these snakes. The size of the enclosure is relative to the size of the snake. Keep in mind that most pythons and boas grow rather quickly and require substantial facilities. Buy or build an enclosure of appropriate size and one that has a locking mechanism and prevents escape.

The ground material or substrate should be something that is easily replaced or cleaned. Newspaper works fine, but for a more attractive cage, the use of indoor/outdoor carpeting will also work. Hiding boxes and decorations should also be simple and easy to remove for cleaning and may include pieces of wood, corkboard, and clay pots.

A shallow dish of fresh water is supplied for drinking and should be of sufficient size for the snake to soak in as an aid to thermoregulation (body temperature control) and shedding. When the snake is of sufficient size, the bathtub can be used as a soak pit once or twice weekly. Misting with a water bottle is also enjoyed by many snakes. Clean the cage and water dish as needed but minimally on a weekly basis.

Providing the correct environmental temperature is vitally important for the wellbeing of all reptiles. Warmth is required for normal activity and physiologic functions, such as eating and digesting food and good immunity against disease. There is some minor species variation, but for boas and pythons the vivarium temperature during the day should be maintained at 80–90°F. The temperature in the basking area should be maintained at or very near 90°F, and from 80–85°F at the opposite end of the enclosure. The proper use of thermometers cannot be overemphasized. Don’t guess when it comes to temperature—be responsible and use thermometers.

Providing the appropriate temperature can be achieved in many different ways. Heating pads or strips may be used under one end of the vivarium. This and all heating devices pose the potential threat of becoming too hot and causing serious life-threatening burns. Again, heed warnings and use thermometers appropriately. Follow manufacturer’s directions and warnings and also think fire safety. Fiberglass heating pads can be purchased and may offer an ideal basking area for large snakes. Hot rocks can be used with care, although they have been notorious for causing burns and are quickly outgrown. For true basking, above the snake heat sources are ideal. Red heat lamps or ceramic heating elements that screw into a light fixture are preferred over typical light bulbs. This is due to the fact that they can be left on at night without emitting white light and thereby achieve a day/night cycle. Space heaters may also be used, but with great caution to avoid overheating. It is best to use thermostats with any form of environmental temperature control, as snakes are not uncommonly injured or killed due to mistakes or carelessness in maintaining temperature.

Rodents are the mainstay diet of captive snakes. Feeding regimens should be based on the condition of each individual animal, so exact recommendations are difficult. But as a general rule:

  • From hatching to 1 to 1-1/2 years of age, gradually go from one mouse every 4–5 days to two mice every 4–5 days.
  • From approximately 1 to 3 years of age, switch to rats and gradually increase from one rat every 5–7 days to two rats every 5–7 days.
  • As the snake grows larger, you may feed one or two small rabbits every 7–10 days. Increase to larger rabbit(s) as the snake’s size warrants.

Please keep in mind that these are only guidelines and individuals should be treated as such and fed accordingly. It is also important to realize there can be considerable size variation between species and individuals. Feed prey items that are approximately the size of the snake’s largest diameter. It is better to feed two smaller rodents as opposed to one that is too large. It is usually recommended to feed dead prey instead of live prey to help prevent injury to the snake and lessen the suffering of the prey. If live prey is offered and not eaten in a short period time, it must be removed in order to prevent its feeding upon the snake. Never leave live prey in with your snake without watching for it to be eaten, as serious, deep, and life-threatening wounds can be created by most rodents biting along the snake’s back. It is also recommended to feed freshly killed prey so the vitamins it contains within the digestive tract don’t diminish and are utilized by the snake. It is feasible to freeze freshly killed prey, and then thaw just prior to feeding. Vitamin and mineral supplementation is typically not necessary.

Feeding can be somewhat risky and care must be taken to avoid injury. Snakes attack prey based largely by sense of smell. For this reason, don’t handle prey items and then stick your hands in front of the snake. This is asking to be bitten. Before offering prey, make sure you know where the snake is in the enclosure. If the snake is near the door, move it out of the way with a snake stick. When the snake is safely out of striking distance, place the prey in the cage with tongs or toss it to an appropriate area of the cage. Take these same precautions when removing uneaten prey. A board or other suitable shield can be placed between you and the snake when introducing or removing prey. It is best to interact with the animal at other times other than just feeding so it doesn’t automatically associate attention with a meal. When dealing with larger snakes, it is advisable to have someone nearby or at least within calling distance in case of emergency.

Certain diseases are commonly seen in these animals; therefore, with any newly acquired snake an examination by a qualified veterinarian is warranted. This exam includes checking a fecal sample for the presence of intestinal parasites, so please plan on bringing a sample of fresh feces when you make your appointment.

Following the guidelines outlined above will help ensure a mutually beneficial relationship between you and your snake. Together, we can dispel myths and fears about these fascinating creatures of beauty and intrigue.

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