Ball pythons are one of the most popular pet snakes, and for good reason. They’re not just beautiful; they’re also typically docile, reasonably-sized and very forgiving. However every super hero has their “Kryptonite” – and for ball pythons this is a frustrating reluctance to eat sometimes.
If you have a ball python that’s not eating, this article is for you. After 15 years of keeping and breeding ball pythons I’d like to talk through some suggestions for how to deal with the situation of a ball python that won’t feed.
The first thing to realize if your ball python stops eating is that such things are quite normal. Granted, they can be quite worrying the first time, but it’s important to appreciate that thousands of ball pythons go through a similar process each year and cope just fine. Don’t therefore initially worry too much; a few weeks without food are unlikely to do your ball python any harm.
The key is keeping a close eye on your pet to ensure that they are in good health. Hopefully you’re regularly handling and observing your snake, but you should pay particular attention to any ball python that won’t eat. Keep a close eye on their weight and body form.
Most ball pythons will maintain their weight pretty closely, and appear in the best of health when fasting. However if you pet starts to noticeably lose significant weight or otherwise shows health issues then they should be taken to a specialist reptile vet as a matter of emergency.
Reasons (and Solutions) for Ball Pythons Not Eating
There are a number of reasons why ball pythons go off their food. The intention of this article is to look at some of the most common reasons; and what you can do to coax them into eating again.
The first, and most common, reason for a ball python refusing food is that they have a moult coming up. Many snakes will go off their food for some weeks before they change their skin; in my experience the bigger the snake is, the longer they will fast before a moult.
The first question to ask yourself therefore is whether your snake is coming up to moult. Keeping a journal of sheds can be a good way to identify the times when your snake moults; enabling you to predict that another moult may well be on the horizon.
Secondly, appreciate that snakes can change in both behaviour and appearance when they get very close to a moult. You may find that they become more reclusive, for example, or that their colors become paler and less vibrant. Most obviously, a snake that is just days away from a moult will develop “cloudy eyes” as the skin starts to loosen itself.
While there can be a week or more between a snake going off their food, and these physical and behavioural changes being obvious, they are certainly factors to keep an eye out for. If you suddenly notice one day that your ball python has developed cloudy eyes then you know exactly what is on the horizon.
Typically ball pythons will start to eat again within a week or so of a successful moult. Indeed many will be ravenous and will seem to always be hungry for the first few weeks after the end of their fast.
Many ball pythons – both captive and wild – go through seasonal changes. Most ball pythons breed at specific times of the year, and experts can predict when they’re likely to lay eggs based on the time of year.
However its not just breeding which follows seasonal patterns; many ball pythons often go off their food at set periods of time. General agreement in the hobby suggests that this is especially so for males, who often seem to go off food around the same time each year. Such a ball python may go off food for months on end; not just weeks.
Then one day you’ll find that for no obvious reason they suddenly seem hungry again. Presenting them with a dead rat leads to an instant reaction. They’re back.
This is another reason why record-keeping can be so beneficial, as it allows you to keep an eye on your ball python, and to spot patterns when it comes to moulting and/or fasting.
Rats Vs Mice
Some ball pythons develop a particular taste for certain prey items. While adults will typically eat rats of varying sizes, its not unusual for youngsters to be fed on mice because they’re available in smaller sizes. The problem is that some pythons become so attuned to the taste of mice, that moving them up to rats can be problematic. I know of at least a few adult ball pythons who refuse rats altogether and are instead fed on a growing pile of jumbo mice!
There are two messages here. Firstly, try to get your ball python used to eating rats as early as possible in his or her life, to prevent problems later on. The second message is that if you ball python is refusing to eat, it can be worth trying to switch them to the other prey item just to see if it appeals enough to start them feeding again.
Safety & Security
Ball pythons can be nervous captives. In the wild they will spend much of the daylight hours hidden away in burrows where they feel safe, yet many of us fail to accurately reproduce this habit in captivity. If a ball python feels “exposed” it may refuse to eat – or may even snap at a prey item before giving up and dropping it.
I have personally had best results where I have allowed my pythons to feel safe. This means one or more good-sized hides in which they can fully conceal themselves, and a tank that has solid surfaces all round apart from the front. I then feed my snakes in the late evening, just as they’re naturally waking up. While feeding I try to stay as quiet as possible and keep the lights down low so as to not spook any of the snakes while they’re feeding.
Temperature & Humidity
Many ball pythons enjoy a surprisingly warm cage. The ideal temperature for my ball pythons is considerably higher than for my milk snakes, for example. While the pythons will be happily basking in their hotspot, when I tested a similar temperature for my milk snakes I found them down the cool end bathing in their water bowls.
So while many pet snakes will be happy with a temperature of around 25’C (give or take) my ball pythons seem to like it considerably warmer. They now enjoy a hotspot of just over 30’C and seem much happier and more willing to eat as a result. In other words, another solution if your ball python refuses to eat is to consider warming up one end of their cage to see if this kicks them into action.
While talking about temperature its also worth pointing out that ball pythons have temperature-sensitive pits around their mouths. This helps them to sense prey around them, even in the dark. Feeding cold (defrosted) rats and mice can therefore represent a problem as they just don’t set off these temperature sensors.
If your ball python is refusing to feed consider warming up their prey before feeding. I do this by placing the (dead) rodents in a plastic bag, and suspending this in a container of warm water for a few minutes before feeding.
As mentioned earlier, many ball pythons go off their food for weeks or even months at a time without any negative health impacts. Frequently this is as a result of a forthcoming moult, or simply down to seasonal variations.
However, as discussed, there are also a range of environmental factors that can prevent pythons of feeding; such as cool conditions, a lack of security or a preference for a certain prey item. Each of these is worth experimenting with if you’re getting worried.
However it would also be remiss of us to discuss a very different situation; that in which your python refuses food so much that it seems to be suffering in terms of health. Perhaps it is losing weight, and looks bony. Maybe it is struggling to moult properly. Perhaps its just sitting morosely in its hide for weeks on end refusing to come out and explore.
If you are in any doubt about your pet python you must take it to an experienced reptile vet as soon as possible. Yes, I know its going to cost you money and I also know it can be a lot of hassle. However when we take on the responsibility of caring for an exotic pet the single most important factor is the health and well-being of our captives.
So don’t just ignore the problem, hoping it will go away. Instead take action and visit your vet, who after a proper health check may well suggest a number of rather more extreme measures (such as force feeding) but which will help your python to pull through and make a full recovery.