Coming from sub-Saharan Africa, ball pythons need to be kept warm in captivity.
Their cage should offer a range of temperatures, with one end being cooler than the other.
This gradient then allows your snake to move about and find the area that best suits them. This generally means heating one end of the cage, while leaving the other unheated.
A temperature of 25-30’C is ideal for the warmer end of the cage.
But the question is: what is the best way to heat your ball python cage?
The Best Heaters for Ball Pythons
Possibly the easiest type of heating suitable for ball pythons is the humble heat mat.
These are in essence a paper-thin heating element, sandwiched between twp pieces of clear plastic. A wire and plug comes out of one side, and is plugged in to provide a gentle warmth of around 25’C.
Costing just pennies a day to run, these are some of the cheapest reptile heaters to buy and to use.
There are, however, a number of weaknesses of using heat mats with ball pythons.
Firstly, the heat that they provide is quite gentle. It tends not to travel well through thick cage walls, while the heat itself soon escapes from well-ventilated cages.
If you’re going to use a heat mat for ball pythons, therefore, it generally pays to place the heater inside the cage, where it can have the most benefit.
Placing it on the floor of the cage, at one end, and then gently covering it with a thin layer of substrate tends to work well.
In this way your snake can “bask” on the warm substrate just as they might in nature.
This works particularly well in wooden vivariums, where the timber helps to “insulate” the cage, preventing the heat from escaping.
The heat mat should be of a suitable size that it allows your ball python to completely curl up on it, while leave the rest of the cage slightly cooler.
In situations where heat mats are used in particularly cold climates, or in cages that aren’t as well-insulated (such as plastic cages) then a heat mat alone may not be sufficient.
A heat mat may be used to take the edge of night-time heat under such conditions, but it may be necessary to supplement your heat mat with a more powerful source of warmth to keep your pet in the best of health.
Originally designed for gardeners, a heating cable is a waterproof electrical cable.
They are intended to be sunk into flower beds, where they gently warm the soil and improve germination rates in cooler weather. While they’re unlikely to be of interest for reptile keepers with a single ball python, if you end up with a number of cages then heat cables can be a very practical solution.
The cable can be gently wound in and out of each cage in turn, allowing you to heat a whole batch of tanks – even a collection of wooden vivariums – using a single heater. This saves on costs, as well as keeping your use of plugs to a minimum (and ongoing battle when keeping multiple reptiles).
In my experience heating cables can get considerably warmer than traditional reptile heat mats.
Where I keep ball pythons in home-made racks, using large Really Useful Boxes (RUBs) as cages, these cables can really come into their own. I design the racks so that the cable runs along the back 25% of the cage, and generally find this offers a temperature in the region of 30’C.
Heating larger or smaller amounts of the cage can effectively control the temperature within.
In this way a single heating cable warms half a dozen ball python cages or more.
Heat bulbs or heat lamps are typically fixed in the roof of the cage, and can get much warmer than either a heat mat or a heat cable.
To successfully fit a heat lamp you’ll ideally be using a wooden vivarium. Investing in a suitable bulb and a holder will be necessary. These bulbs can get very hot indeed, so it’s also recommended to buy a bulb guard, to prevent the risk of your snake brushing against it and getting burned.
Note that heat bulbs don’t necessarily have to give out light. While many heat bulbs will add a level of attractive lighting to your cage, there are also heat bulbs that produce no light whatsoever.
This can be helpful for ball pythons, as they are mainly nocturnal. This means that such a bulb can be used around the clock, without interfering with the natural day-time/night-time cycles of light.
Lastly, ceramic heaters are arguably the most powerful of all. They can easily produce 35-40’C heat, and are capable of warming even large or well-ventilated cages. They can, of course, also be used in wooden ball python vivariums.
Ceramic heaters produce no visible light, rather like night-time heat lamps, so won’t mess with the day/night cycle of light, and once again they need to be protected with a guard to prevent injuries.
In most cases a ceramic heater will be “overkill”. A heat lamp does everything that a ceramic does, but often for a lower price. For those people in really cold countries, however, a cermic heater can be a suitable solution to your ball python heating requirements.
So what’s the Best Ball Python Heater?
Defining exactly what the best heater for ball pythons is can be challenging, as it often depends on individual circumstances. What works for one person may not work for another.
Heat mats can be useful for providing a gentle background heat in cooler months, and provides a comfortable warm substrate for your ball python.
Here in the UK, however, even when using wooden vivariums I find that the heat produced by a heat mat may not be enough in the colder months. It can therefore be a good idea to supplement this heat using a heat lamp. These are cheap to buy and easy to install.
While you don’t necessarily have to use the lamp year-round they can be very handy for keeping your ball python’s cage warm and cosy when there’s snow on the ground outside.
Thermostats: An Essential Piece of Kit
Thermostats are devices that control the temperature of your heater. You plug the heater into the thermostat, plug the thermostat into the mains, and place the thermostat’s sensing probe into your ball python cage. This ensures that the heater is turned up nice and warm during cold weather, but that the heat is never allowed to get too much.
While some people use heat mats without thermostats, thanks to the low level of heat produced, most experienced keepers still recommend thermostats even for these devices. It most certainly will be required if you opt to use a more powerful heater like a bulb or ceramic.
Note that each heater requires a different thermostat; your heat mat will require a matstat, while bulbs and ceramics use other thermostats.
This means that if you opt to use two heaters (heat mat and bulb, for example) you’ll be needing two thermostats. This can increase the cost of setting up your ball python cage, but is a worthy investment in terms of your pet’s health.
Fitting Your Ball Python Heater
Each heater must be fitted correctly if it is to function as designed. In many cases it will be necessary take a wooden vivarium apart to fit heaters, as cables will need to be threaded through holes etc.
Heat mats are thew easiest to install. Simply place a suitably-sized heat mat at one end of the cage, on the floor. Cover with a small amount of substrate and fit the thermostat heat probe in place.
The two wires – one from the heater and the thermostat probe – can then be fed out of the cage before it it put back together again.
Heat lamps and ceramics can take rather more effort. These will generally need to be screwed firmly into the roof of the vivarium. Plug them to check they’re working successfully, then afix the guard to prevent burns. Once again, feed the thermostat probe and the electrical cabling out and pop the cage back together.
As you can see, installing a new heater into a ball python vivarium can be a reasonably fiddly process, so it’s not one that you’ll want to do again in a hurry. This is especially so when your python has been popped into his or her cage.
If in doubt, therefore, I like to install both a heat mat and a non-light-producing heat bulb into a new cage.
The lamp may only be used in colder weather, but it’s nice to know I have it set up, installed and tested should that situation arise. It’s a lot better than realizing that your heat mat is under-performing, and having to take the cage to pieces to fit an extra heater at a later date.
Monitoring the Temperature in your Ball Python Cage
Even with a thermostat in use it is critical to carefully monitor the temperature in your ball python’s cage.
This is doubly-so the first time you set the cage up.
It is generally best, however frustrating it might be, to set the cage up a few days before actually bringing your snake home. This way you can monitor conditions and easily “tweak” them as necessary without upsetting your snake.
Once you’re confident that the hot end in warm enough (but not too hot) and that a thermal gradient is present, then you can feel confident in bringing your ball python home from the store.
A range of reptile-thermometers are currently available. The cheapest of these are “dial” thermometers which can be stuck to the wall of your ball python’s cage.
Second to these, and rather more accurate in my opinion, are digital thermometers. These typically come with a “probe” which can be fixed in place, while the digital readout is kept outside the cage.
Lastly, there are heat “guns” that allow you to take temperature measurements by pointing the device into your cage and taking a reading.
Personally I find that the dial thermometers are generally the most practical option. Buy two, and place one at either end of the cage. There are no batteries to worry about, and no wires and probes.
Instead you can glance in at any time, and check the ambient temperature at each end of the cage. As a reminder, a temperature of some 28-32’C is deal for the warmer end of the cage, while the other end should be noticeably cooler.