Spider Ball Pythons: An Introduction and Care Guide

Spider ball pythons are stunning snakes. As well as being attractive in their own rights they’re also the basis for a whole load of rarer and more complex morphs seen in the hobby. 

At the same time, however, the “spider” ball python morph is one of the most contentious subjects in the snake-keeping hobby right now.

This is because spider balls are known to suffer from some serious health problems. Here in the UK this has lead the International Herpetological Society to ban them from sale at their reptile expos. 

Spider ball python care and breeding guide.

Before you go out and buy your first spider ball python here’s what you need to know…

What Does the Spider Ball Python Look Like?

Spider ball pythons are usually yellow with black lines that run horizontally. The markings often resemble a spider’s web, hence the name of the snake. 

As with all ball pythons the females are bigger than the males at adulthood. Male spider ball pythons grow to 3 – 4 feet in length (90 – 120 cm) and the females can get as long as 4 and a half feet (137 cm). Hatchlings are around 10 inches in length when they are born and super cute!


What is the Lifespan of a Spider Ball Python?

In the wild ball pythons will live to be approximately 10 years. However, in captivity they are not subject to freak weather conditions or being hunted as prey so they can live as long as 50 years, although it is more common for them to live between 20 and 30 years. If you’re thinking of getting one, be prepared to look after it for a long time. It is a big commitment.


Head Wobble Syndrome

The main issue surrounding spider ball pythons (and morphs derived from the spider line) is that some specimens can suffer from a “head wobble”.

As the name suggests, affected snakes seem to wobble their heads, or appear almost “drunk” as their head hangs to one side. 

This is a genetic condition and cannot be “cured”. As a result, there is some debate about whether we should be keeping and breeding snakes with such obvious problems. 

I will say that the severity of these symptoms can vary massively between specimens.

I have a single spider ball python in my own collection (“Matilda”) that I bought years ago before I heard about these issues. The head wobble in my specimen is barely noticeable. She eats well and the condition really doesn’t seem to have had any negative impact on her.

With things as they are, however, I don’t plan to breed her. 

I would suggest you think seriously about whether or not a spider ball python is right for you. Perhaps you would do well to select an alternative morph (or even the good old “wild” form) to prevent more of these genetically-disadvantaged snakes being bred. 

While I love my Matilda, and have had her for many years, I would probably recommend against buying a spider ball these days.  

Spider ball pythons can suffer from neurological problems.

Best Vivariums for Spider Ball Pythons

As with other exotic pets, it’s crucial to get your spider ball python’s housing right. Your ball python cage needs to prevent your snake from escaping while providing the optimal environmental conditions. 

Fortunately as ball pythons have slowly grown to become one of the most popular pet snakes in the world so breeders and keepers have experimented with a range of housing options. Here are some of the more popular options…


Plastic Cages/RUBS

Many serious breeders keep spider ball pythons in rack systems. Here each snake is kept separately in a small plastic container. These fit like shelves into racking so they can slide in and out for feeding and maintenance. 

On a simpler level some pet owners with a single spider ball python opt to use large plastic storage boxes like Really Useful Boxes (RUBs).

Pros

  • Individual plastic cages are typically cheap to buy (less so for professional racks).
  • It is possible to repurpose household storage containers of a suitable size by adding ventilation.
  • They don’t soak up moisture so they’re easy to clean and keep sterile.
  • They are strong and sturdy and many come with a locking lid to prevent escape.

Cons

  • They look pretty bad so generally aren’t ideal for someone that wants to observe their snake.
  • Some DIY may be required to add the required ventilation to the cage.
  • It could be argued that they often don’t provide enough space for the snake to move around.
  • You’ll need to be careful when providing artificial heat that the plastic doesn’t melt.

Exo Terras

Exo Terras are really only suitable for baby spider ball pythons, as they’re likely to outgrow all but the largest in time. That said, they’re fantastic-looking cages and one of my favorite options when trying to create a naturalistic-style setup. 

Pros

  • Mesh lid not only means excellent levels of ventilation but additionally makes it easy to heat your spider ball python with an infrared heater. 
  • These are some of the best-looking reptile cages of all so look fantastic in the home.
  • Front-opening doors make feeding and cleaning easy.

Cons

  • Relatively expensive to buy so you’ll need to be willing to spend the necessary money to land one of a suitable size.
  • As they’re made from glass they can be quite heavy so will need to be placed on a solid surface.

Glass Aquariums

Experts are divided over the use of glass fish tanks for ball pythons. Some claim that they can provide too much ventilation, with others stating that spider ball pythons can feel exposed in an all-glass tank. As a result be sure to provide plenty of hides for your spider ball python if you go down this road. 

Note that just like other snakes, spider ball pythons are born escape artists, so you’ll need to consider how to secure the top of the aquarium. You can either make your own lid if it is tight-fitting, or possibly more easily consider investing in a suitably-sized mesh vivarium cover.

Pros

  • Cheap to buy and easily found in most standard pet stores.
  • Quite easy to clean and sterilize, though moving it may present problems. 
  • The mesh lid can make heating and/or lighting your cage easy. 

Cons

  • Requires an escape-proof lid which can add to the overall cost.
  • Some snakes may feel insecure so a suitable number of hides are required.
  • Larger models can be heavy and are of course fragile if dropped.

Wooden Vivariums

While they seem more popular in Europe than in the USA, I’m a big fan of wooden vivariums for spider ball pythons.

Typically made from melamine/contiboard they’re able to withstand some moisture if your python spills their water. I like to add aquarium silicone to all the joins to further protect the wood from warping in response to humidity.  

Pros

  • Often arrive flat-packed, so are easy to order online and have delivered to your home.
  • Sliding front makes for ease of feeding and maintenance.
  • Solid wood sides provide extra privacy for your spider ball python.
  • Stay nice and warm in the winter with minimal artificial heating.
  • Not as heavy as glass python cages.
  • Easily stackable – ideal if your reptile collection starts growing.

Cons

  • Not as easy to source than other caging options.
  • You may need basic DIY skills to construct the vivarium.
  • Need to be careful that the vivarium has suitable ventilation.

Substrate

Your spider ball python cage will need some kind of substrate at the bottom. Here there are many options with every keeper having their own preference.

The cheapest option, used by many professional breeders, is newspaper.

However there are a number of downsides to using newspaper.

Firstly, and most obviously, it looks horrible, which kind of defeats the object if you’re buying a beautiful spider ball python. 

Secondly, it tends not to be very absorbent so needs to be constantly replaced. It’s not just faeces that you need to worry about; ball pythons will sometimes spill water from their bowl either by soaking themselves in it or by moving the bowl during normal everyday activities.

Adult females also have an odd habit of wrapping themselves around their bowls in the breeding season, which can result in more spillage. 

Thirdly and perhaps most important of all is that newspaper doesn’t facilitate natural behaviour. For example, your snake can’t burrow around in the substrate, and there are fewer abrasive surfaces when it is time to moult. 

Fortunately there are plenty of other options, which may prove to be more practical. 

Having tested a huge number of substrates over my 15 years keeping and breeding ball pythons my personal preference right now is for a substrate known as Lignocel. It is made from fine wood chippings. It looks quite attractive, is very absorbent, and if supplied to a generous depth can encourage more natural burrowing behaviour. 

Other popular options include orchid bark, coconut fibre (coir) and cypress mulch.

Whatever the case add a decent depth for your snake – at least an inch for hatchlings spiders and perhaps even more for adults. In an ideal world your snake should be able to entirely conceal itself below the surface so aim for a substrate depth of at least the fattest part of your snake’s body.  

Also, be prepared to spot clean the substrate on a regular basis, removing any areas that have become soiled and topping up as necessary. 


Hides

In the wild ball pythons will spend much of their lives hiding out of sight in a burrow. Somewhere to hide away will therefore help your snake to feel comfortable in their cage.

A spider ball python that has nowhere to hide may become stressed, which can result in them refusing food or snapping at your fingers. It is therefore crucial that your snake is provided with at least one hide.

Here, again, there are many different options. Simple, cheap and easily sourced, some keepers opt to use a cardboard box, replacing it as necessary. As with newspaper, however, this hardly looks very visually appealing and will require constant replacement. 

It is possible now to buy plastic hides – essentially a black plastic box with a hole for your snake to enter it. These might not be the most attractive of solutions but they are very practical indeed. They come in a huge range of sizes – suitable even for the biggest spider ball python.

Being made of plastic they last and last and are easy to scrub down during routine tank maintenance. The small hole also ensures total privacy for your snake within. I now use these with roughly half my snakes. 

Taking things up another notch, one can find a variety of wooden hides like curves of bark. These are the most attractive of all in my opinion, and are perfect for a more naturalistic cage set-up. The downside, besides their weight, is that they can require extra effort to clean.

(As a side note I’ve written a whole article about the best hides for reptiles which you can see here).

The key things when choosing a hide is that your spider ball python should be able to fully conceal itself inside. Sizing is therefore crucial. If in doubt, visit an exotic pet store to visually check any hide you have in mind will be suitable for your pet. 


Humidity & Moisture

Experts still disagree on the optimal humidity level for spider ball pythons. On the one hand, ball pythons seem to thrive in conditions of slightly higher humidity than some other pet snake species.

An atmosphere that is too dry can lead to problems with sloughing.

On the other hand, a vivarium that is too damp can lead to health conditions such as scale rot or respiratory conditions. 

So what’s the solution? Living in the UK, the humidity in my animal room remains around 60-70% through most of the year. My ball python cages are kept dry, though all snakes have access to a water bowl at all times. This “natural” humidity level seems to work fine, with no major issues with sloughing. 

In cases where a snake has difficulties has moults you can provide a “moss boss” by placing damp moss into a hide. This isolates the moisture, but ensures your spider ball python can access higher humidity areas if required. 

Ventilation is important to prevent stagnant, stale conditions in your spider ball python cage, so whatever cage you choose ensure it allows for air movement. 

Spider ball pythons may not be the biggest snakes, but they are very muscular. This means that water bowls should be suitably heavy to prevent them tipping over. I use ceramic bowls designed for cats or dogs for my specimens and these seem to work well.

Bigger specimens are of course given bigger bowls.

The water is changed daily to keep it fresh, while the bowls are scrubbed out with reptile-safe detergent, allowed to dry and then replaced each weekend.  


Temperature

Hailing from Africa it should come as no surprise that your ball python is likely to appreciate some supplemental warmth.

In the wild snakes regulate their own temperature by moving between warmer and cooler areas. They may bask in warmer places before moving off to hunt.

This same concept – a “thermal gradient” – can be created in captivity too.

Here we ensure one end of your spider ball python’s cage is hotter than the other. 

Each specimen is different in terms of their preferences, but as a general guide the hot end should be roughly 88 – 96 degrees F (31 – 35.5 C) and the cool area should be 78 – 80 degrees F (25.5 – 26.6 C). 

Please note that these are general guidelines.

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Not only are all snakes unique, with some preferring warmer or cooler temperatures than others, but the “optimal” temperature for your spider ball python can also vary by season. Therefore it is a good idea to monitor your snake’s behaviour and adjust temperatures in response.

If your snake is always squished up in the hottest area of the cage then consider increasing the temperature. The opposite applies if they’re also obviously skulking around the coldest part.

Over time you’ll figure out the perfect conditions for your snake. 


Best Heaters for Ball Pythons

There are a range of reptile heaters and it isn’t always easy for beginners to choose the right option.

The best heater will depend not just on your snake, but also on their cage and your home general.

For example if you’re using a cage that has plenty of ventilation – like an Exo Terra or a fish tank with a mesh lid – then you may need a more powerful heater.

On the other hand, if you opt to use a wooden vivarium, and your home stays nice and toasty all year round, a less powerful heater may be more than capable. 

Here are some of the top options:


Ceramic Heaters

Ceramic heaters get very hot, so can be a good option for colder areas/homes or for snakes in mesh cages. 

Pros 

  • Can get very hot, making them perfect for cold homes.
  • Creates a nice basking spot for your snake.

Cons

  • Need to be carefully fitted to prevent damage to snake or cage.
  • Must be used with a ceramic bulb holder.
  • You need to ensure your snake cannot come into contact with it, so a bulb guard may be necessary.
  • Combining the bulb, holder, guard and a reflector can make this one of the more expensive options.
  • Generally far higher wattage than other solutions which can mean a higher electricity bill for you.

Tips for Usage

  • Ideally position the ceramic heater above and outside your spider ball python cage to prevent the risk of burns. For example these can be fitted above the mesh of Exo Terras.
  • If used inside a spider ball python cage be sure to use an appropriate bulb guard.
  • Carefully monitor temperatures to prevent the risk of overheating.
  • Be sure to use with a suitable thermostat. 

Heat Mats/Pads

Heat mats, also known as heat pads, produce a far gentler heat. This can be ideal to give your snake cage a subtle boost, but means they may not be suitable for cooler homes or better-ventilated cages.

Pros 

  • Cheap to buy.
  • Easy to use.
  • Produce a gentle warmth so are ideal for warmer homes or better-insulated cages.
  • Low power means they can be cheaper to run than ceramic. 

Cons

  • Generally unsuitable for very cold areas due to the limited heat output.

Tips for Usage

  • Don’t aim to heat the entire cage with a heat mat. The mat should cover just ⅓ to ½ of the cage floor, allowing your snake to escape to a cooler areas when it desires.
  • They can be used inside or outside your snake cage. They can therefore be a good solution for wooden cages, where external heating may not penetrate the wood properly. 
  • Be sure to use with a suitable thermostat. 

Heating Cables/Tapes

Heating cables are really only suitable for keepers looking to heat a number of cages while only using one plug socket. If you decide to purchase several baby spider ball pythons together then these can be handy for heating all your vivariums at once. 

Pros 

  • Allows you to heat multiple cages with one single heater.
  • Makes it easy to produce a heat gradient. 

Cons

  • Doesn’t provide the opportunity to vary the temperature in different cages.
  • Really only suitable for keepers with multiple cages kept close to one another. 
  • Modest heat output once again means they’re best suited to warmer homes.

Tips for Usage

  • Tapes and cables come in a range of sizes, so familiarize yourself with the options and choose one of a suitable length.
  • Can be used inside or outside of cages depending on your setup.
  • Be sure to use with a suitable thermostat. 

No matter which heater you opt for it is crucial to appropriately monitor and control the temperature your snake is exposed to. Overheating is a very real risk which, in extreme cases, can lead to fatalities. 

I advise using at least one thermometer – and ideally two – in your ball python cage. Keep a close eye on the hot and cool end as the seasons change, ensuring they’re always appropriate. If your heater is struggling there are plenty of ways to warm up vivariums in winter. 

Additionally, while I’ve already mentioned it several times I want to be clear that all reptile heaters require a thermostat to prevent them getting too hot. 

If you’d like to learn more about heating your spider ball python I recommend you read this article from the blog


Feeding Spider Ball Pythons

400;”>Feeding spider ball pythons doesn’t need to be difficult.

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They fare well on a diet of appropriately-sized rodents.

Generally ball pythons will eat a rat or mouse equivalent to the fattest part of their body. This means that hatchling will likely start off on mice, while adults will inevitably move on to rats with time.

I advise against feeding live rodents. They can bite your snake, defecate in the cage, and it may even be illegal where you live.

Instead try to familiarise your ball python with eating dead rodents. Before buying a spider ball python it is worth checking with the breeder or pet store what they’re eating and how often.  

Hatchling snakes need to be fed every week as they are growing and need the energy. Adult snakes can be fed every 10 – 14 days.

Ball pythons have heat sensitive pits in their lips (those tiny holes you can see just above the mouth). This means that warm prey can be more appealing for ball pythons than feeding cold rodents.

If you’re buying frozen rodents and then defrosting them at home then consider warming them up to body temperature before feeding.

I do this by placing the food into a plastic bag and suspending it in hot water. Check the temperature before feeding to ensure your snake won’t burn it’s mouth – we want pleasantly warm not steaming hot.  

Ball pythons can be fussy eaters on occasion. Larger specimens in particular may refuse food for long periods of time, which can be a real source of stress for many new keepers. So long as your snake appears healthy and isn’t losing condition then this generally isn’t something you should worry about.

Eventually your spider ball python will rediscover it’s appetite and start feeding again. I’ve had some specimens refuse food for months on end and eventually they start feeding again. So just be patient. 

That said, before you accept defeat and wait it out, there are a few elements should confirm.

Firstly, I have found that my ball pythons prefer to eat in peace and quiet. If I sit in front of their cages watching them they’re far less likely to eat. While most hungry ball pythons will eat at any time of day, I have found that my fussier specimens seem more likely to eat in the evening rather than during the day.

My own feeding regime is therefore to ensure low light intensity in the room. I defrost and warm up the rodent in the early evening, place it gently into the cage using long tongs, shut the door and leave them to it while keeping any noise to a minimum. 

The tongs are handy as ball pythons can vary by their feeding responses. Monty, an old male in my collection, is a very gentle eater. One of my females, however, is crazy and will lunge forward at the first sign of food. The tongs help to keep my fingers out of harm’s way! 

Assuming you have the conditions right if your spider ball python isn’t eating then another consideration is whether they are coming up to a moult.

Snakes may go off their food for some weeks before a slough.

Roughly a week before the moult takes place you’ll notice that their color appears “washed out” and their eyes have gone cloudy like they have cataracts. If this is the case then just hold tight.

Let them moult, give them a week or two to recover, and then try feeding them again.


Handling

One of the reasons why ball pythons have become such popular pet snakes is that they are generally very docile and slow moving, so are perfect for anyone who wants to handle their pet. 

All the same, all snakes are individuals, and the more your snake is used to handling the easier you’ll find it.

If you specifically want a spider ball python you can handle then it’s worth asking to hold any snake before you make a purchase to ensure it is calm.

Assuming your ball python is fine with handling then the process is pretty simple.

Firstly, you want to ensure that your snake doesn’t accidentally mistake you for food. I don’t like to combine handling and feeding; you don’t want to smell like a rodent. Snakes also shouldn’t be held for a few days after feeding, so they can properly digest their meal. 

While most ball pythons are quite friendly, we all have bad moods on occasion. For example, I find that my spider ball python can be cranky when she is coming up to a moult. A week or two before her eyes go cloudy her personality changes and she’s best left alone. 

Rather than just picking your snake straight up it can be wise to gently stroke them with a pen, a pair of tweezers or suchlike. Ensure there’s no negative response such as a strike before you gently life your snake out of their cage. 

The goal when handling your spider ball python is to support as much of their body as possible, using both hands. 

Stay calm and move slowly and gently; some ball pythons may feel threatened by loud noises or sudden noises and could strike as a result. 

Hold them over a soft surface, so that if you slip your snake won’t be harmed. 

Don’t overdo the handling or some pythons can get stressed and may start to refuse food. 

Richard Adams

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