Feeding Ball Pythons

When I first started to keep reptiles in the 1990’s ball pythons were still seen as something very unusual and exotic.

Any mention of a “python” drew awe from other people, and with their stout, chunky bodies they really were something totally different to the corn snakes and garter snakes that were prevalent at that time.

They also developed a bad reputation for going off food for long periods of time and for generally being fussy eaters. At the time, some keepers were advocating not handling ball pythons at all, as they believed the stress was one factor in their refusal to eat.

Of course, that was a long time ago. Largely wild-caught adult pythons have been replaced by a mind-blowing array of captive bred specimens in an almost infinite array of colors and patterns.

These captive bred specimens tend to adapt to captivity much better, generally being calmer and less prone to stress.

In addition, we as hobbyists have learned much about these pythons. We know, for example, that it is reasonably normal for ball pythons to go off their food in the winter months, and that adult males seem particularly prone to this.

We also known from past experience that so long as your python isn’t losing condition that this extended fast likely isn’t anything to worry about.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning, in case you’re just planning to get your very first ball python…

ball python photo

What Do Ball Pythons Eat?

Ball pythons are carnivores, and need to be fed meat on a regular basis.

Based on the size of the python and the ease of finding food, this tends to mean rodents in captivity; the vast majority of ball pythons are fed on either rats or mice of a suitable size.

How Often Should I Feed My Ball Python?

Ball pythons can grow surprisingly quickly when they are well fed. At the same time, ball pythons can be lazy, and some specimens do seem to get a little overweight.

While each keeper has their own routine, personally I feed my youngsters twice a week initially, slowly increasing the time between feedings to roughly once a week for my adults.

Note that these timings aren’t “fixed”; some pythons will eat far more regularly than others, while moving your snake from one type of food to another can also affect the feeding regime.

One of the best things you can do is to start a feeding chart for your ball python.

Keep records of what food was offered on what dates, and whether it was accepted. Combine this with regular health checks and weigh-ins and you’ll be in the perfect place to assess your ball pythons health and appetite.

If you are unlucky enough to find your ball python suffers from any health issues in the future, such a chart can also be of great interest to your vet, allowing them to spot anything obviously wrong.

What Size Food Should I Give My Ball Python?

When selecting a prey item for your snake, the easiest process is to think of the circumeference of the item. This should be no larger than the fattest part of your snake. Thus a hatchling may need tiny mice, while larger adults may eat adult rats.

Be aware, however, that there is a lot of flexibility in this. I have found that my ball pythons are far more likely to eat smaller prey than larger items, so if your snake seems to turn it’s nose up at the food offered you may want to try feeding something a little smaller.

Pro Tip: Speak to the breeder or pet shop when you actually buy your ball python. Ask them about what they’ve been feeding, and how often, to give you a good starting point. If they have been keeping feeding charts – as many people do – then all the better.

At least in this way you can start off feeding your snake in the manner to which it has become accustomed. Changes can then be made slowly over time.

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How to Move Up Food Items

Baby pythons will probably start off on very small rodents.

As the python grows, however, so they’ll need more and more food. Consider both the size of the prey item given and the frequency.

These two combine to provide your snake’s total calorie intake.

As you increase the size of the prey item given, so you might want to increase the time between feeds. This time drops slowly over time until your snake is ready to move up to the next size of prey and so on.

An alternative solution is to keep feeding frequency the same, but increase the number of items being given.

If your ball python is eating large mice, and you think he or she may be ready to move up to something larger then try them on two mice – either fed together or one day after the other.

After a few weeks like this you can feel confident that your snake now has the appetite to eat their new prey source.

ball python photo

Should I Feed Rats or Mice?

Whether to feed rats or mice is a contentious issue in ball python circles. In truth, for small pythons it can be easier to feed very small mice.

Rats obviously aren’t available quite as small, and can be rather more expensive. An adult ball python, however, will probably require something bulkier than even the largest mouse; feeding rats of varying sizes therefore makes sense (and can be cheaper than feeding multiple mice).

The problem is that some ball pythons can become fixated on mice if fed them for long periods of time, and seem to find rats far less appealing. If you’re not careful you can end up with a large python that is eating you out of house-and-home each month, downing armfuls of adult mice while turning it’s nose up at the cheaper and more practical option of rats.

In my experience, given enough patience, even hardened mouse-eaters will eventually get used to eating rats – though the process may take some patience.

My advice would therefore be to start off with rats if they are available in a suitable size for your snake.

If you can only find small mice that your snake can consume then this is certainly better than nothing, though your goal should be to gently “convert” your ball python to eating rats as soon as possible.

Doing so will increase the growth rate of your snake, and make feeding them as an adult much more cost effective.

Frozen Vs Live Food for Ball Pythons

There are two traditional ways to feed a ball python; either giving them live rodents to catch and kill, or providing dead animals that are bought frozen.

Some keepers like to feed live rodents, believing it is more “natural” and secretly enjoying the “hunt”.

Others claim that feeding live rodents elicits a better feeding response; ideal for those snakes that go off their food for a period of time.

The flipside of course is that a rat or house has the potential to do some serious damage to your snake; cases exist where snakes have had chunks bitten out of them by a rodent trying to escape becoming dinner.

The act of watching a snake catch and eat a live rodent is also more than many people can stomach, while in many parts of the world feeding live rodents is actually illegal.

Frozen food is, in my opinion, the way to go. Its cheap and easy to buy, and can be stored for some time in the freezer. When it’s feeding time the food can just be thawed out and fed.

There’s no worry about your snake getting damaged, no mess left in the cage from a live rodent fouling it and no awkward conversations with pet shop owners when buying another “pet” mouse from them.

What About Uneaten Food?

Uneaten food is bad news. A live rodent, as discussed, can bite and nip at your snake. But even frozen food left in the cage for long periods isn’t good news; it can quickly go off in the warmth of a ball python cages and smalls rancid!

Leftover food should therefore be removed from the cage promptly. Quite what “promptly” means depends on the snake.

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Some of my pythons are voracious feeders and grab their prey within moments of being presented with it. If it is left untouched for more than a few minutes then I know there’s little interest and remove it.

Another python of mine is surprisingly shy, and tends to prefer eating at night long after I’ve gone to bed. He therefore is left with his prey until the following morning, by which time he’s normally finished it off.

Some keepers will refreeze uneaten food, assuming it hasn’t been left in the cage for too long, but I personally do not. I worry that thawing and refreezing the food may cause stomach upsets, so each item is presented once and then thrown away if not eaten.

For keepers with more than one ball python, an alternative solution is to feed them on different days. If snake number one won’rt eat their food, it is then presented to snake number two, who will hopefully eat it.

This eliminates waste and, so long as you’re keeping feeding charts, can be an efficient way to make feeding your snakes as cost-effective as possible.

ball pythons photo

How Should I Actually Feed My Ball Python?

Once you’ve selected a suitable prey item, next you need to actually feed it to your ball python. Here’s the process I use…

Firstly, I boil the kettle.

Next, I fill a plastic tupperware container with water; roughly 50% boiling and 50% lukewarm.

The snake’s food is then placed into a plastic bag (a sandwich bag tends to work well) and suspend it in the tub. The lid is then placed into the tub to keep the heat in. This speeds up the process of thawing out the mouse or rat, which makes feeding a quicker experience.

The key, as I have discovered, is to use moderately warm water.

If the water is too hot then the rodent thaws out too quickly, which often ends in the stomach bursting. This is not a pleasant smell, rest assured.

Once the rodent is thawed I then repeat the process with the water. The reason for this is that ball pythons have heat-sensitive pits above their mouths. As a result, a warm prey item is more appealing than a cold one.

This second process serves to gently warm the mouse to around body temperature. This time around you only need to suspend the rodent for a few minutes.

The warm rodent can then be gently placed into your ball python cage.

Many of my pythons grab the rodent almost before it touches the ground. Others are rather more bashful, and prefer to wait until I’m gone. Either way, I aim to feed in the evening (when your ball python will naturally be waking up anyway), to keep the light levels low and to keep noise to an absolute minimum. In short, my pythons get peace and quiet while eating.

The snakes are checked again a few hours later, and any uneaten food is removed, together with any “spillage” from the carcass.

A few additional notes on feeding your ball python…

Firstly, some people like to move their snake to a different “feeding cage”. They claim that this reduces the chances of your snake mistaking you for food at a later date, as they only eat in one specific place. Personally, I’ve never had any issues with feeding my pythons in their cages.

Secondly, while I tend to just throw the rodent into the cage, some keepers like to actually feed the snake by holding the rodent in long tongs and waving it around infront of the snakes face. Once again, I haven’t found this necessary and my snakes continue eating without issue.

Where To Buy Snake Food

As reptiles have gained in popularity, so the number of places selling frozen snake food has ballooned.

These days most cities have a reptile shop selling such items.

Even better, there are almost places where frozen rodents can be ordered online and delivered to your home. They typically come carefully packed, in a well-insulated box together with packs of dry ice.

I have personally found that the prices online tend to be far more reasonable, and with a hectic schedule the opportunity to have the rodents mailed to my home also makes my life easier.

Images c/o The Reptilarium, snakecollector & brian.gratwicke

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I've been keeping and breeding exotic pets for over 20 years. Come and join our reptile-keeping community and prepare for some exciting discoveries! You can join us on Facebook here or follow me on Twitter for the latest reptile news.

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