Friday, October 5, 2012

Proper Feeding

I would like to address feeding, an activity that is a common precursor to failure in Ball Python ownership.  Stick to the program, and your snake will be eating healthily and frequently.  I do not advocate "power feeding", or overfeeding to gain size quickly.  I am going to give you the formula that will allow your Ball Python to grow naturally and healthfully.

Choosing frozen or live is mostly a matter of personal preference.  Arguments can be made in both directions, and there are situations that specifically call for one or the other.  Let's look at some universal principles first.

In either case, prey size is crucial.  The prey you offer to your snake should be almost as large as the largest part of the snake's body.  Compare the diameter of the mouse/rat to the diameter of the middle of your snake's body.  If the prey is larger, you run the risk of injuring your snake.

Some handlers will tell you to move your Ball Python to an area separate from their enclosure to feed.  Sometime in the past, the idea came about that if you never fed your snake in their enclosure, you would reduce the chances of being bitten when taking your snake out to be held.  Please see a previous blog post on "Becoming a Snake Handler."  The idea of moving your snake before and after feeding invites serious issues.  For instance, when you feed your snake, you will likely not feed a completely filling meal.  Ball Pythons are opportunistic feeders, and as such have the ability to consume relatively large meals.  They do this to help them last during extended periods of not being able to find food.  Instead, we feed frequent, smaller meals to sustain life and encourage healthy growth.  Therefore, once you feed your Ball Python away from his/her enclosure, you must handle them to get them back into their enclosure.  The Ball Python is likely still in "prey drive" mode, and would be more likely to bite you.  In addition, handling your snake soon after feeding could potentially cause them to regurgitate, a possibly life-threatening incident.

Feeding your Ball Python in their enclosure is the best option for all parties involved.  You will minimize your chance for getting bitten, and will reduce the probability of injuring your snake.  

Frozen/Thawed rodents offer a convenience and safety factor that have made this option more popular.  You head down to your local pet shop, buy a couple of months' worth of feeders and stock up.  Thaw the rodent in warm water, and viola!  Be sure to use tongs to present the recently-thawed rodent to your snake.  Here is a video that illustrates the virtues of using tongs or hemostats!

Now that this example is out of the way, let's move forward.  There are some downsides to feeding frozen that I would be remiss if I didn't mention.  Recent confirmed salmonella and other zoonotic illnesses transmitted by frozen rodents have dissuaded some from using this option.  

I personally feed live rodents to Ball Pythons.  I find that my snakes respond to live feeders nicely, and I have a good source of rodents.  I also do not mind watching my snakes kill their prey, which is a major issue for some.  There are some considerations concerning feeding of live prey, though.  Both mice and rats have the ability to kill your snake.  That sounds odd, I am sure.  I do a bit of snake rehabbing, and have seen the results of someone dropping a rodent into the enclosure with a snake and walking away.  Disastrous does not even begin to describe the outcome.  If feeding live, you must stay with your snake until he/she has successfully constricted and started eating the prey.   You also must be prepared to take the rodent out if it begins to bite your snake.  I have only encountered this on a couple of occasions, but it is a possibility.  Your snake will not necessarily strike if a rat or mouse is attacking it.  With those isolated issues aside, I still find it worthwhile to feed live prey.

There is a rash of vitamin supplements cropping up as of late, and I would like to forewarn you about these.  The vitamin issues that send snakes to the vet are almost always overdose or overuse.  In particular, Vitamin A can be very problematic for snakes in large quantities.  If you are feeding a diet of rodents, your snake will receive all of the vitamins and minerals it needs, as nobody is running around in the wild misting all of the Ball Pythons with a supplement.

Never feed Gerbils to your Ball Python.  If you start this trend, you will likely only be able to feed Gerbils for the remainder of your relationship with the snake.

I will address feeding issues in a later post, but if you have questions please comment below!

Bon Appetit!

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Becoming a "Snake Handler"

The time has come for you to handle your Ball Python for the first time since you placed them in the enclosure.  Let me make one suggestion prior to your embarking upon this journey-buy a small bottle of blue Listerine.  I haven't had to use mine in some time now, but just in case...there is always a bottle nearby.

I want to address the "Big Nasty" right up front...what if you get bitten?

Relax!  Let's talk about bites a bit, and what you can do to prevent and/or interrupt them.  You will be fine, the snake will be fine and both will be much happier afterward.

Ball Pythons can bite as a defense mechanism, though I primarily see this in young snakes.  One of my first hatchling Ball Pythons was named "Strikey" for his frequent "lashing out".  With that said, a defensive bite from a hatchling Ball Python is about as traumatic as pricking your finger to measure your blood sugar.  They generally strike with their mouth open, and retreat with their mouth open.  Defensive bites rarely involve the snake "holding onto" or constricting you.  They just lash out, and you may see a drop of blood.  Obviously, Ball Pythons are not venomous, so rinse the wound and carry on.  (Not intended as medical advice.)

If for some reason your snake bites and holds, under no circumstances should you attempt to "pull" the snake away from the bite.  There are two reasons that this is a bad idea;

1-You have effectively turned what could have been less than a pinprick into lacerations.  If the snake is of any size, you will likely be hoppity-hopping to the local ED for some sutures.

2-You will likely pull some of your snake's teeth during said incident, possibly killing your snake through refusal to eat or trauma.

What are you supposed to do?  I'm so glad you asked!  Remember the blue Listerine?  Calmy (or with help) pour a small amount of blue Listerine into the cap from the bottle, and pour said pea-sized amount onto your skin directly in front of the snake's mouth.  A small amount of blue Listerine will run into his/her mouth, and they will subsequently let go.  Do not pour directly from the bottle, as a larger volume will likely kill your snake.  Just pour in pea-sized amounts until the confused snake lets go.  We will revisit the reason for 99% of "holding" bites.

I can hear you now..."How am I supposed to stay that calm and collected while a snake is clinging to my flesh?  It is actually easier than you think.  For the most part, it just doesn't hurt.  The worst of the experience is when your brain catches up with the fact that a snake has struck at you, and you try to fly away with all of that flapping.  When you are reaching for your snake, realize that you could be bitten.  If you are prepared, you should not be surprised.

When handling your snake, I suggest that you gently tap a certain number of times on the door of the enclosure prior to opening and reaching in.  I will explain this in-depth later.  For now, gently tap four times on the glass, open the door and let's pick your snake up.

Keep your hand open and approach your snake with your hand in a "stop" configuration.  Open, fingers together and extended, palm toward the snake.  This will minimize bites should they occur.

Reach in with authority.  Hesitation, reaching and pulling or the like will cause they prey mechanism in your snake to fire, likely resulting in a bite.  Just reach in with purpose and pick your snake up.

Do not rub your snake to "get them used to your touch".  They aren't dogs, and while I have seen one of my friends rub his King Cobra, I wouldn't generally recommend this practice.  Ball Pythons often "rub" their killed prey just prior to eating it, so you could be sending the wrong message.

Do not approach your Ball Python's head.  They will be head sensitive for the majority of the time you handle them.  Don't reach for the end with the teeth!  Instead, pick them up by their body.  Do not pick them up by the tail.

Not too hard, not too soft.  Squeezing a Ball Python has no purpose.  Pick them up with enough pressure to be certain that they do not fall, as falling can be lethal.

Once in your hands and out of the enclosure, get still.  Don't wave your hands in front of or around the snake.  Just let him/her sit on your hands, while you keep them from falling.  In the likely event that they are "balled" when you pick them up, do not attempt to "open them up".  This is a senselessly painful experience for your snake.  Just let them come out on their own.

Once they open up and start looking around, keep them secure, but let them explore your hands.  Again, do not point at, poke or try to touch their head.  This type of activity will not end well.

Your snake may do something like this.  He's staying warm.
Having others around is fine, but limit the passing around of your snake for the first few days.

If for some reason you think that you should hold your snake close to the back of their head, abandon that idea.  Really...if you are calm, follow my directions and don't smell like a mouse or a rat, this will go very nicely.

When you are tired of watching your new buddy slink around between your hands, gently place him/her back on the floor of the enclosure and close/lock the doors.

What can go wrong?

Forward to 3:04 to see Chewy's examples of what NOT to do.

A few things.  Don't handle mice, rats, guinea pigs, gerbils, rabbits or other small animals prior to holding your Ball Python.  Their vision is not fantastic, but they sense heat and smell very well.  If it is warm like a mouse, smells like a mouse and is roughly the same size as a mouse (finger), you will likely get bitten.  I had a friend that gave his snake away because it "bit him every time he handled it."  It turned out that he was handling the mouse, then going to get his snake so that it could eat.  The whole scenario was a nightmare, and I only wish he had consulted me prior to giving his animal away.  I will further address this issue in a post entitled "Proper Feeding."

One more thing-don't use gloves.  They shield heat and lots of smell, along with your sense of appropriate pressure.  Plus, if you are planning on using gloves until the Ball Python "gets used to you", the day you remove the gloves is like starting over from scratch.

As a disclaimer, small children should be very carefully observed when spending time with your Ball Python. My two year-old loves every snake I have, and is allowed to touch them within very limited parameters.  I hold his hand and steer him to touch away from the head of the snake.  I will allow a snake to crawl over his arm, but at no time does he hold the snake.

Upload a video of you handling your new friend!

Assembling Your Snake's New Home

It is time to set up your Ball Python's new home!  This is one of my favorite parts.  This is a short list, but will get you up and running safely.  Feel free to question with specific issues below.

Wash your new enclosure thoroughly.  I recommend a 1 to 5 mix of regular dish soap to warm water.  Rinse well.  I also sanitize the enclosure with 1 to 10 bleach to water ratio and allow to air dry.  If you take these steps with the enclosure, plants, soak dish and any other fixture you purchased for the enclosure, you will be on your way to success.  Avoid attempting to wash substrate or vines.

Heater placement.  Graphic editing is not my forte.
After your enclosure is dry, peel the backing from the substrate heater and stick it to the bottom of the glass enclosure.  Place it in a corner so that your pet Ball Python will be able to properly thermoregulate.  Your Ball Python needs to thermoregulate, or "find" the proper temperature to properly digest and stay healthy.  Sorry about the $5.00 word there, but if you are reading any standard texts on Ball Python care, you will see that word.

Place substrate approximately 3/4 of an inch deep on the bottom of the enclosure.  If you purchased a "brick" of dried, compressed substrate that required soaking in water, squeeze as much water as you can out of the product before spreading it.  Your Ball Python doesn't need to be crawling around in "soup".

Place your recently cleaned and sanitized soak bowl directly over the substrate heater.  Sweep all of the substrate away from the location that you are placing the soak bowl, leaving it resting directly on the glass.  This serves two purposes; helping with enclosure humidity through evaporation, and preventing your snake from burrowing under the soak bowl and becoming injured.

Bury the base of any plants in the substrate, covering the "anchor" or rock attached to the base of the plant.  Your new snake will likely disturb these plants quite a bit, so for now be patient and let him/her be.

Place any vines you purchased SECURELY in the terrarium.  If you purchased plants or vines that adhere to the side of the glass, rub the suction cup with isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) and allow to dry before sticking.  This will help the cup to stick securely.  Since you thoroughly cleaned the glass prior to all of this, your plant should stick nicely.

Place the recently cleaned hide box or snake cave near the edge of the substrate heater's location, but not directly on top of it.

If a heat rock mysteriously appeared in your bag, I am sure that there is a table in the house with a short leg, or some papers on your desk that need a weight. :-)

Check that the screen top of your terrarium is secure...Ball Pythons are pretty strong, and if they detect that even a corner of the top isn't secure, you will spend some considerable time looking for them.

Attach thermometers/hygrometers to the glass.  I typically place these approximately 4 inches higher than the bottom of the enclosure.  This way, I get to monitor the snake's environment.  I  do have a couple of additional considerations concerning placement.  I like for the thermo/hygro to be opposite the substrate heater, and not to be close to other fixtures such as hide boxes, waterfalls etc.

Place the hood or lighting fixture.  Turn the lights on, plug up the substrate heater, fill the soak bowl and watch some cartoons.  Once the temp in the enclosure is close to 88 degrees F, start watching the thermo.  Make certain that the temp doesn't continue to climb.  If your humidity is lower than 65%, employ that spray bottle and purified water.  Give the enclosure a few mists and watch the humidity rise.  

If all is well, place your new Ball Python in their new home.  Once they are in, close the door(s) and lock it up.  Give your new pal at least 5 days of adjustment before handling, opening the enclosure only as necessary to replace water or in the event of some sort of emergency.  Try to avoid having the entire family tree standing closely to your snake's new home for during this acclimation period.  We really just want your new snake to adjust to normal household sights and smells.  Notice that I didn't mention sounds, right?  We'll jump on that train later.

Give 'em a name!

Proper Ball Python Enclosures

So you own a Ball Python, now what?  You need somewhere for him/her to live.  I hope that you will accept my recommendations as a collective.  If you do, I can conclusively say that your snake will live a happy, healthy life.

My Exo Terra Sri Lanka.  The Ball is hiding.
Buy a terrarium that opens from the front.  This picture depicts one of my Exo Terra enclosures, namely the Sri Lanka.  Exo produces some cool "complete kits" that you can have set up at home in short order.  There are others, but I like this one best.  The main reason for selecting an enclosure that opens from the front is to reduce stress in your Ball Python.

Ball Pythons are so named for their primary natural defense mechanism, which is balling up.  They arguably "ball" in an effort to make their body too large to be easily constricted or eaten.  Ball Pythons are very sensitive to being approached from above, and will readily "ball" due to someone leaning over an aquarium to look at them or pick them up.  You likely appear as a predator when you do this to a Ball Python.  Approaching your new pet via a front-opening door induces much less stress, and even better facilitates your snake coming to you when you open the door.  Most of my snakes are very social and readily come to the door when I open it.

Assuming you do not purchase a "ready-made kit", the next concern is substrate, or "bedding".  I prefer shredded Aspen, which is readily available in most decent shops.  Coconut shell, be it bark, fiber or a coarsely-ground product also works well.  Cypress is also fantastic.  I tend to shy away from finely-ground substrate to prevent my snakes from ingesting too much and becoming impacted.

A soak bowl is necessary.  This will double as a water bowl, and should be large enough to allow your Ball Python to "coil" his/her entire body in.  This will also help to maintain the humidity in the enclosure.

If you do not plan to use bottled/purified water, a product like ZooMed's Repti-Safe is necessary.  This will condition tap/well water so that it is safe for your snake to drink.  Remember-water in their natural habitat is neither chlorinated or too hard/soft.  Make certain that you at least purchase a water conditioner.  I prefer to buy purified water by the gallon.

Vines, plants and a hide box are very necessary components to creating a healthy habitat for your Ball Python.  In the wild, Ball Pythons spend a large amount of time in hiding.  Your new pet should have a place that he/she can completely hide it.  Avoid the "Reptile Den" product by Exo.  It is dangerous for Ball Pythons.  I like their "Snake Cave" much better.  Use locale-specific synthetic plants in their enclosure.  Exo and ZooMed have outstanding offerings when it comes to plants.  I like to use a few vines that are "shapeable" in my enclosures.  Some of my Ball Pythons are climbing "bone-heads" with not much balance, but they continue to roam about, seeming very happy.

Thermometers and Hygrometers are essential.  Both ZooMed and Exo Terra offer combo units.  Keep the temperature at 88 degrees F, and the humidity at around 65%.

Purchase a substrate heater, or "heat mat".  This is not a heating pad from the local drug is a purpose-built sheet that adheres to the bottom of your enclosure, on the outside.  It should be no larger than 1/3 the overall size of the bottom of the enclosure, and should be placed in a corner.  Follow the directions concerning mounting the mat.

Lighting is mainly necessary for viewing, or for supplemental heat as needed.  Ball Pythons do not need nor benefit from UVB.  Most front-opening terrariums out there come with a screen top.  I would recommend purchasing the hood designated for your terrarium, as "clamp lamps" or an ill-fitting hood or lighting fixture generally lead to the plastic pieces on top of your enclosure melting.  Rather than having a snake escape, I would suggest coughing up the extra coin for the proper hood or lighting fixture.

Terrarium locks keep aspiring "Jungle Jack Hannahs" from becoming a sad story.  Spend the $3-$5 on these.

There are more things to consider, although most are decorative or for automation, such as waterfalls.  There is one item to leave on the shelf, or if you currently have one, unplug and throw into the road.

HEAT ROCKS.  If Bobby Bouche's mom were standing beside me, she would tell you that heat rocks are "Of the Debil".  After consulting with the few capable reptile veterinarians in the US, I can say beyond any doubt that heat rocks have no place in a Ball Python enclosure.  You will burn your snake, cause unnecessary and frequent sheds, and could ultimately kill your snake.  That just isn't fair to your animal.  I know, I know..."cousin Billy has one in his Ball Python aquarium, and his snake is ok."  I seriously doubt it.  His snake isn't "okay" just can't speak for itself to tell you how much his belly hurts.  I don't mean to beat this point into the ground, but leave the heat rock alone.

One last item, here.  Buy a spray bottle.  Don't recycle one of your glass cleaner or other cleaner bottles from home.  Spring for the couple of bucks and purchase a new bottle.  You will need to mist your snake's enclosure as needed to maintain humidity.

That's it for housing needs...stay tuned!  Feel free to ask questions, I will more than happily answer below.


Buying your first Ball Python

One of my first Ball Pythons, aptly named "Strikey"
Ball Pythons have enjoyed a rapid "rise to the top" in popularity as a pet snake.  They are most popular because of their generally passive nature and relatively simple habitat requirements.  Still, if you decided that you wanted a snake and ran to the local pet shop to buy one, the advice you received there may not be completely accurate.  I would like to share a bit of information about Ball Pythons, and their native environment.

Ball Pythons were originally imported to the US as a required purchase.  Exporters would list the awesome reptiles they had for sale, and attach a minimum Ball Python purchase clause to the item.  In short, if you wanted some type of really hot reptile, you had to purchase 50 Ball Pythons at $2.00 each or something of that nature.  As a result, stating that Ball Pythons didn't live a good life in the United States would be an understatement.  At some point, an "odd looking" Ball Python came into the port, and garnered attention from someone.  The industry started with a few of these "odd looking" snakes, and began gaining some popularity.  Of course, those snakes led to the 5,000+ current genetic mutations of Ball Python currently available in the US (read Hot Ball Python Morphs), and suddenly a $2.00 snake could ultimately sell for upwards of $25,000.00.  Yes, there are Ball Pythons for sale at $25,000.00 (or more).

The common Ball Python should be for sale in your local pet store for around $50.00.  I see them go for upwards of $100 in some cases, and for as little as $25.00.  Budget for $75.00 to be safe.

I am going to talk to you like this is your first snake.  There are questions that you need to ask prior to purchasing;

1-Is this snake captive-born?  If the answer is not a "yes" with certainty, tuck tail and run.  Due to the popularity of these snakes, they are still caught in the wild to some degree.  Wild-caught specimens are more prone to carrying ticks and mites, and let me tell you-they can be tough to get rid of.  I also argue that the temperament of wild-caught snakes is not as conducive to a "social" snake as that of a captive-born snake.

2-How often is this snake handled?  If the employees of the shop are scared of the snake, chances are that you will receive an animal that it more prone to bite.

3-How long has this snake been here?  Word it however you like, these snakes are great pets.  I have a tremendous collection, and I still love the regular-old Ball Python.  If the animal is healthy and reasonably-priced, it won't sit for very long.  If the shop personnel seem clueless, bid them adieu.

4-How often is it eating?  The answer should be at least once per week.  If it is within its first 6-8 meals, it should be eating every three to four days.  Don't believe the garbage out there about feeding your Ball Python once a month.  If it only eats that often, there are a several reasons.  Either the temp and humidity are off, the snake is ill, the snake wants to breed or the snake's owner is misinformed.  In the best conditions, eating once per week is ideal.

5-What is it eating?  I feed live, unless I freeze the rodents myself-with few exceptions.  There isn't anything wrong with feeding frozen, with the exception of not knowing the health of the feeder.  There have been some pretty scary issues with zoonotic diseases cropping up in frozen rodents lately.  I will give more direction on proper live feeding later.  The shop personnel should be able to tell you what size and type of feeder is being used.  Make certain that you don't hear the words, "African Soft Fur Rat".  More on this later.

6-May I hold it?  If the answer is no, I don't think I have to tell you how quickly you should leave.

In addition to these questions, here are some observations to make;

1-Is there elimination (poo) in the enclosure?  If so, I would immediately have concern with sanitation.  Obviously, the snake could have eliminated right before you walked in.

2-Is the snake in an aquarium or "tank"?  This is the most unhealthful of enclosures for a Ball Python.  More on that in enclosures.

3-Is water available to the snake?  Ball Pythons need unlimited access to water.

4-Is the Ball Python curled up in the water dish?  Not always, but this could indicate mite infestation.  You do not want to start out with mites.  More on this later.

5-What type of substrate (bedding) is the Ball Python on?  If it is on pine or cedar, run like the dickens, only after you inform the shop personnel that they are hurting their snake, and should remove their heads from their sitting apparatus.  This information is WIDELY available, and we expect reptile and pet shops to set a positive example.

6-The golden observation-I'll bet that you won't see this in 10% of the shops you visit.  Is a heat mat offered for the Ball Python?  Heat rocks are completely unacceptable and would be the worst idea in the world for a Ball Python.  A heat mat affixed to the outside-bottom of the enclosure.  This isn't a deal-breaker, but could explain eating issues.  This more illustrates just how much bad information is out there concerning Ball Python care.  Ball Pythons need belly heat to properly digest their food.

If you are still standing in the shop, buy the snake.  See the entry entitled "Proper Ball Python Enclosures" for what to purchase next.