Much has been written in the past about ball python cages, and each keeper will have their own preferences. The intention of this article is to provide a balanced guide to choosing and setting up your ball python cage, in order to keep your pet snake happy and healthy throughout its life.
If there’s one key factor that differentiates keeping reptiles from other types of pets it’s the importance of their cage.
While a rabbit cage is really just a container designed to stop the rabbit from escaping, ball python cages have rather more factors to consider. For example, the right ball python cage will:
- Allow the maintenance of a warm environment (they are cold blooded animals after all)
- Allow the maintenance of of a suitable humidity (especially important at moulting time)
- Provide an environment where your ball python can feel safe and secure (ball pythons without this can cease to feed)
- Prevent the escape of your python, where damage could come to it
- Provide an attractive feature for you to enjoy observing your pet
As you can see, there are a lot of factors involved with selecting the best ball python cage, but we’re going to cover everything you need to know…
- 1 Types of Ball Python Cages
- 2 So What’s The Best Ball Python Cage?
- 3 What Size Cage Does My Ball Python Need?
- 4 Creating The Habitat
- 5 Substrates
- 6 Hides
- 7 Temperature
Types of Ball Python Cages
Over the years ball python keepers have experimented with a wide range of different caging alternatives. Here are the most suitable options being used at present in the pet trade:
Glass fish tanks have been used by numerous keepers in the past, as they offer excellent visibility for the owner. They do, however, represent a significant number of difficulties when it comes to creating the ideal ball python habitat.
For starters, ball pythons are well-known as escape artists so it’s critical that any fish tank you consider using has a closely-fitting (escape proof) lid. Fortunately a number of cage toppers are now available on the market, and typically consist of a black mesh lid, often with a glass panel which slides in and out for easy access to the cage.
Truth be told, however, even these tank toppers aren’t perfect. Ball pythons are adept climbers and are surprisingly strong for their size, so its not unheard of for them to manage to push such lids off the top of their cage before making a break for freedom. If you are to use such a device, therefore, be certain that it is very tight-fitting or weigh it down with some heavy books.
Another consideration when selecting the best ball python cage is how you’re going to heat it – and keep the warmth inside. These mesh lids can present problems with warm air rising up and out of the cage, making it difficult to maintain the required temperature for your pet. For this reason it may be necessary if using an aquarium to cover up some of the mesh or install more powerful heating than in other types of cages.
As you can see, while glass tanks certainly have their benefits, they also represent a number of potential pitfalls too. Personally I have used them as short-term homes for young snakes when the weather is warm, but as the mercury starts to drop (or the snake starts to grow) I prefer to make use of other cage types.
Wooden vivariums which are designed specifically with snake owners in mind can make far better ball python cages.
The wooden surroundings of the cage mean that keeping in warmth and humidity is far simpler. This keeps your electricity bill down and helps your ball python to feel more comfortable.
Furthermore wooden vivariums are easy to “modify” – meaning that attaching or installing heaters of all forms is quite simple and efficient.
Another aspect of ball python vivariums which makes them such a tempting option is that the solid walls and back of the cage provide extra privacy for your pet. Ball pythons tend to be quite sensitive and shy animals, and benefit from areas where they can escape your gaze and feel safe.
Warning: I strongly advise you to invest in a suitable cage lock for any wooden vivarium you’re using for a ball python. This prevents your muscular snake from accidentally opening the sliding glass doors, and also ensures that children or visitors to your home aren’t tempted to open the cage without your authorization.
Exo Terras are specially-designed glass cages designed for keeping reptiles and amphibians. They offer handy glass doors that make accessing your tank a breeze, while also locking shut when not in use. Thanks to their design, adding heating to Exo Terras is also simplicity itself and they represent, in my mind, one of the most attractive forms of caging around.
That said, the greatest weakness of Exo Terras for ball pythons is that they come only in a small range of sizes, none of which are really suitable for larger pythons. As a result while an Exo Terra can make a fantastic-looking and very practical cage for a hatchling ball python, they’re next-to-useless for larger specimens who require suitable space to feel comfortable.
Plastic containers have become surprisingly popular as ball python cages over the last few years, mainly thanks to exhaustive experimentation by experienced breeders.
The reality of keeping ball pythons is that they’re not the most active of snakes, they can be nervous in captivity when exposed for too long and in the wild they’ll spend most of the day hiding out in a burrow.
All this means that ball pythons don’t necessarily need the biggest cages in the world; indeed a huge cage with nowhere to hide is arguably the worst thing possible for a ball python.
Compact plastic containers therefore have a number of particular strengths. While they’re certainly not the best-looking caging option they do make it very easy to keep warmth and humidity in the cage.
Their plastic nature also makes them lightweight, cheap to buy and easy to clean. Just as importantly (for breeders) these plastic cages take up minimal space, meaning that those with a large collection can accommodate them in a relatively small space.
Here in the UK I use a brand known as “Really Useful Boxes” (or simply RUBs for short) which are strong, light and have useful locking handles that keep the lid on no matter what. All you need to do is to drill some ventilation holes (simplicity itself with an electric drill) and you’ve got a perfectly serviceable ball python cage. These can also be purchased in the USA from sites like Amazon (direct link).
Wooden vivariums are such a practical option that some keepers opt to make their own. Doing so can reduce your costs and allow you to build a cage of the perfect dimensions for your home and your snake.
Of course you’ll need some DIY skills, and the ability to source the parts you’ll need. Remember that it’s not just the wood you’ll want to buy and cut to size, but you’ll also need the glass doors, runners and ventilation panels.
As an alternative to buying a premade wooden vivarium homebuilt cages can be highly effective cages if you’ve got the skills and patience to build one in the first place.
So What’s The Best Ball Python Cage?
We’ve covered quite a few alternatives by now, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each. The obvious question is really what’s “best”? Personally my preference is for wooden vivariums. I feel they’re ideal for retaining heat and humidity while providing an excellent view of your pet. They’re also available in a dizzying range of colors, sizes and shapes to suit any home and really create a fantastic focal point for any room.
As a secondary option, for those who plan on keeping a number of ball pythons, are the plastic tubs.
What Size Cage Does My Ball Python Need?
Selecting a suitably-sized ball python cage is a critical part of the whole process.
Too small and your snake won’t have suitable space to move around.
Too large and some snakes can feel insecure, refusing food and losing condition.
Generally speaking it is my belief that ball python cages should be at least as long as your pet is, and a minimum of half this width.
Height is unimportant for ball pythons who may try to climb, and risk potentially harming themselves in the process.
More specifically I would suggest the following measurements:
Hatchling Ball Python Cages – Minimum of 24″ long, with the knowledge that you will have to keep an eye on your python’s growth and invest in a larger vivarium and he or she grows.
Adult Ball Python Cages – Should measure a minimum of 36″ long and ideally more. Personally I typically house my ball pythons in 48″ long vivs.
Here are what some other authorities recommend in terms of cage sizes:
“Adults require at least 400-600 square inches of floor space.” – http://vpi.com/publications/the_ball_python_care_sheet
“A royal python needs a vivarium which allows it to fully stretch out. Allow at least third of the snake’s length for the width and height. For example, a 120cm long snake will need a minimum 120cm long, 40cm wide and 40cm deep vivarium.” – http://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/pets/other/royalpython
“Adult ball pythons do not require exceptionally large or elaborate enclosures. A 36-inch by 18-inch by 12-inch enclosure will more than comfortably house an adult ball python.” – http://www.reptilesmagazine.com/Care-Sheets/Snakes/Ball-Python/
Creating The Habitat
One of the most effective strategies for keeping any species of reptile or amphibian successfully in captivity is to consider its wild habitat. The more we can understand about where ball pythons live, and how they spend their time, the better we can replicate this in captivity.
The ball python naturally occurs in sub-Saharan Africa. Here it is a surprisingly wide-spread snake, found in countries such as Senegal, Benin and Uganda. Here it spends much of its life in the security of a dis-used rodent burrow or natural crevice.
While many of these countries are relatively dry, within the confines of the burrow the humidity levels are likely to be much higher. Indeed, many authorities point to the problems that can occur from low humidities in captivity, especially in terms of difficulties moulting.
Equally it should be noted that keeping snakes on damp substrate can lead to all manner of problems, including respiratory problems and skin complaints.
There are a number of factors we can draw from this in order to provide a suitable captive habitat for ball pythons:
- Artificial heating will be necessary for your ball python to feel comfortable.
- A dry substrate should be used, but with the option for higher humidities especially during moulting.
- We should aim to mimic the ball python’s burrow by providing a number of secure hides for concealment.
There are ever more substrates available in the reptile trade, and many of these are ideal for ball pythons.
This light and fluffy substrate is excellent at absorbing any excess moisture and looks fantastic within the confines of a cage.
Unfortunately the fact that the particles are so soft and light can cause problems with feeding. On more than one occasion I have observed ball pythons grabbing a rodent to eat, while taking a large mouthful of aspen shavings at the same time.
The consistency of these shavings mean that they can get lodged in the ball python’s mouth, causing discomfort and distress. Sometimes the python will be able to get the sticky chippings out of its mouth; at other times you might need to intervene.
While aspen shavings are far from a bad substrate in captivity, great care should therefore be taken when feeding your pet. You may opt to either select a different substrate or to move your ball python to a different cage for feeding purposes.
My personal choice for ball pythons is beech chippings. While these aren’t as absorbent as aspen, they look great and – being heavier and chunkier – tend to cause far few feeding problems in my experience.
Just be aware how much you’ll need; with a good-sized vivarium you’ll find that you always rather more than you expected. If in doubt, buy a bigger bag of chippings, just in case.
Corn Cob Granules
Less commonly-seen than either of the two previous substrate options, corn cob granules are another possible option for your snake. Just as the name suggests, these are the ground-up middles of corn cobs, which dry into a tough and gritty consistency.
A range of different “grades” are available though I would always advise that you use the largest particles possible to minimize the chances of accidental ingestion when feeding.
Note that while corn cob granules look great, they do have a nasty habit of going mouldy quite easily. Therefore you should keep a close eye on this substrate, especially around the water bowl or where you pet feeds, to make sure that no mould is growing. Spot-clean as necessary and replace with fresh bedding.
Some ball python keepers – especially breeders with large collections – promote the use of newspaper as a potential substrate. After all it’s free, and makes cleaning simplicity itself. Personally however I must admit that I’m really not a fan of newspaper for a number of reasons. Firstly, of course, it looks terrible. I want my snake tank to look fantastic.
Secondly newspaper has very low absorbency meaning that it needs to be replaced far more regularly than the other substrates listed above which can be “spot cleaned” when required.
Lastly, I dislike the way it is so “unnatural”. Call me soft but I like to provide a substrate to my ball pythons which at least has a passing resemblance to a “natural” substrate. I believe doing so adds an extra layer of environmental enrichment for my pets.
As stated earlier, it is critical that your ball python should be provided with at least one secure place to hide.
If space allows I always like to offer two hides; one at each end of the vivarium in order to give my snakes the ability to choose the hide that suits them best.
Any hide chosen should allow your snake to safely curl up beneath in its entirety. There are a number of possible options for ball python hides:
Cork bark is the bark of tropical oak trees. It is harvested from the tree, which then carries on to grow more. This means it is a natural and renewable resource.
There are a number of things that make cork bark ideal for a ball python hide. Firstly cork bark looks great in any cage. Secondly cork bark is very lightweight, which means there is little chance of damage to your snake if he or she tries to burrow underneath.
The only thing to be aware of is that cork bark is a “natural” product so you’ll find a range of sizes and shapes. For best results try to find a piece of bark with a decent “curve” to it, creating a dark “burrow” beneath for your snake to recline to.
Custom-Designed Bark Hides
While I’m a huge fan of cork bark, my personal preference for ball python hides are specially-made hides. The model I use is made from wood, giving it an attractive rustic and “natural” feel.
They’re also available in a wide variety of sizes, meaning that no matter what the size of your snake you’ll be able to find an appropriately-sized hide. Best of all, I’ve found these custom hides to be much easier to clean than cork bark – and hence rather more hygienic.
Cereal boxes are another simple idea as a hide for your ball python. These are of course free and easily replaced, though quickly become soiled in the cage.
Ball pythons require artificial heating to keep them healthy, though the specific type of heating will be affected by the type of caging you use.
Ideally ball pythons will benefit from a thermal gradient, with one end of their cage being far warmer than the other. In this manner they can pick-and-choose the area most agreeable to them.
For the hot end, a temperature of around 30-34’C tends to work well, with the cooler end measuring somewhere closer to 24’C.
In some containers, such as rubs or wooden vivariums, these temperatures can often be reached with a simple heat pad placed at one end. For more open cages, with greater air movement, it may be necessary to add a secondary form of heating, such as a heat lamp or ceramic bulb, to the hot end of the cage.
Do you have questions about housing your ball python? If so, why not leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible…?