There are hundreds of subspecies of snake, and each requires a specific set of conditions. Think about it: in the wild, some snakes occupy mountainous terrains, while others live in deserts, or marshlands, or rainforests, or even in the sea! Recreating a snake’s natural habitat in an enclosure can seem like a daunting task. Luckily for you, ball pythons (aka Python regius) are not particularly fussy, and are quite easy to take care of.
CHEAT SHEET—How to set up a ball python enclosure, in 6 easy steps:
- Enclosure size: relatively large.
- Lighting: ball pythons do not require artificial lighting, as they are nocturnal snakes.
- Temperature: warm, to mimic central and western African climates.
- Humidity: high, as low humidity can cause respiratory problems, among other issues.
- Substrate: go for aspen, cypress or coconut, and make sure it’s 3’’ deep.
- Must-Have Accessories: boxes for your snake to hide in, as they are reclusive, nocturnal creatures who appreciate solitude.
There are a whole range of snake-care guides out there, containing advice for keeping all kinds of snakes. Sometimes it can all be too much! Well, I’m here to set your heart at ease. You will be glad to know that ball pythons are one of the easiest species to care for. Once you’re all set up, it will be a breeze.
The first thing to note is that while snake husbandry is not particularly challenging, snakes do require regular attention. You should only embark on this adventure if you are absolutely sure you are ready! Ball pythons can grow to be quite large – as long as 48 inches (4 ft) – so you will need a relatively large enclosure. Note: enclosure = vivarium. I’ll go into more detail on suitable sizes below.
Another important thing to remember is that while hatchlings can be kept in an enclosure together, juvenile and adult ball pythons prefer solitude. So if you have more than one ball python, you will almost certainly need more than one vivarium.
Fundamentally, when thinking about how to house ball pythons, we have to understand how they live in the wild. That way, you can emulate its natural habitat inside the vivarium, and make sure your ball python is as content as possible!
Understanding the ball python’s natural habitat
Short answer: Ball pythons like it hot and humid, because they are native to western and central Africa.
Ball pythons are native to a stretch of land between the West African coast and central Africa. The majority of imported ball pythons come from Togo, Benin and Ghana.
Their favoured wild habitats are scrubland, grassland, savanna and open forest. They may also choose to live around human habitations, like arable or pastoral farmland. Ball pythons do not typically inhabit very arid areas, such as deserts, or very humid areas, like rainforests.
Rather cheeky, they spend much of their time in the burrows of other animals – rodents, in particular. These provide ample shelter and moderate temperatures.
Next up – what is the best material for your ball python enclosure?
Types of ball python enclosure
I will cover the 3 basic materials. It is vital to pick a vivarium that is suitable for you—that fits your living arrangements, the amount of space you have, that climate you live in, and your budget. Do not settle for anything low quality, as your snake’s livelihood hangs in the balance! You certainly don’t want your snake to slither out and compromise its own safety, just because its vivarium was not secure.
The 3 essential materials for ball python enclosures are:
On the whole, glass enclosures (or aquaria) are recommended. As a material, glass is durable and easy to clean. On the other hand, glass does not insulate well, which means the temperature will remain fairly consistent with the ambient temperature the room. This could be a positive or negative, depending on where you live!
Glass enclosures come in a variety of sizes and variations, and are easy to source. They allow for a customizable backdrop to give your snake peace of mind. However, they are relatively heavy, and can be difficult to move around (especially large ones!).
- Somewhat durable, depending on thickness.
- Easy to clean.
- Great visibility.
- Affordable (again, depending on quality and thickness).
- Smart designs available, with raised bottom frames to allow for heat pads.
- Modern designs with multiple lockable doors for easy access.
- Often easy to assemble and disassemble, making it a great material for beginners.
- Some glass enclosures come with closable inlets for tubing or wiring, making them easy to modify to suit your individual requirements.
- If you choose a glass enclosure with a metal screen top, you can simply place a ceramic heat lamp on it and heat your enclosure from the outside.
- Heavy, so it can make for a cumbersome vivarium.
- Bad at retaining heat.
- If you have a glass vivarium with a mesh ceiling, as some do, it will allow humidity to escape. To counteract this, you can monitor humidity regularly and place a damp towel over half of the enclosure if necessary. This will prevent humidity leakage. Alternatively, there are ways of increasing humidity from within the tank.
Plastic is lighter than glass, making plastic/PVC cages easier to transport. Commercially manufactured plastic cages are often lightweight and feature front-opening doors. They are designed to accommodate heating devices. However, they are not as widely available as the more traditionally popular glass aquaria, so you might have to purchase one online.
Another plastic option is to use a simple plastic storage box. These can make suitable ball python habitats, and they are affordable and lightweight. Additionally, they are readily available at hardware stores. The downside is, their translucency (as opposed to transparency) reduces visibility for you and your pet. See-through enclosures are favorable. You will also need to drill air holes and make it escape-proof.
- Readily available.
- Translucent, not transparent.
- Requires modification to make it comfortable and safe.
In many ways, wooden enclosures are superior to the others, because they are designed with snakes in mind—rather than simply designed to house reptiles, amphibians or insects. Wood is a great insulator, which means wooden enclosures retain warmth and humidity. It provides a cozy dark space in which your ball python will feel at home.
If you run into issues with your wooden vivarium, it will be because of its quality. You must choose meticulously—choose a well-made, robust vivarium. It may cost extra, but you get what you pay for!
- Great insulator—retains warmth and humidity.
- Designed specifically for snakes.
- Provides darkness.
- Good quality costs money.
Considerations when using the 3 types above…
Weigh up your options, your climate and your budget. If you live in a very cold (or hot) place, you will save money in the long run by purchasing a wooden vivarium. This will hold its temperature much more effectively, as well as its humidity.
If you plan on breeding snakes, you will need a number of smaller, temporary holding tanks, for your hatchlings. An escaped snake can be frightening—for the snake and your family! So make sure you pick a secure enclosure, and look after your snake.
If you have two ball pythons, you must have two enclosures. Snakes are solitary, so they don’t like roommates.
Size of enclosure suitable for ball python
Ball pythons can grow up to 4 ft (48 inches). For this reason, you need to provide a relatively large vivarium. There is a common misconception that a large cage will stress a ball python, and that they prefer smaller spaces. To the contrary, larger enclosures make for slimmer, healthier, fitter and altogether happier snakes.
Here is a rundown of the minimum recommended dimensions for your ball python vivarium, based on the snake’s size:
- Hatchlings (up to 300g): 10 gallon enclosure, measuring approx 20’’x11’’x13’’.
- Juveniles (under 3 ft. / 36 in.): 40 gallon enclosure, measuring approx 36’’x18’’x18’’.
- Sub-adults and adults (over 3 ft. / 36 in.): 120 gallon or larger, measuring 48’’x24’’x24’’ or more. If you go with different measurements, ensure that your ball python has at least 8 square feet of floor space, and 2 feet of vertical space for climbing.
Best enclosure for pet ball python
There are dozens of tanks to choose from, and that’s just the online selection—your local pet retailer may well have some of their own.
Lots of the options are big enough for juvenile ball pythons, but not sufficiently large to ensure an adult ball python has wiggle room. Remember, a snake ought to be able to stretch out fully within the length of the enclosure! So a 2 ft tank is too short for a full size ball python.
Here are three of the most highly recommended enclosures for you and your pet ball python:
- Exo Terra All Glass [Large and Wide] Terrarium
- The large and wide model measures 36’’ x 18’’ x 18’’, which is certainly large enough for any hatchling or juvenile ball python, and most fully grown adults. However, if you’ve got a ball python that’s on track to reach 4 ft, you’d better seek out a bigger tank.
- Pros: durable, dual doors, lockable screen top, raised bottom frame, smart design.
- Cons: mesh top will make humidity and temperature regulation more difficult.
- Carolina Custom Cages Terrarium (36’’ x 18’’ x 18’’)
- This is another popular enclosure, identical in size to the previous one.
- Pros: swish design, hinged lockable front-opening doors, modifiable, metal screen top.
- Cons: doors are a bit fiddly.
- Repiterra Large Wooden Reptile Vivarium
- If you’ve decided on a wooden terrarium, one similar to this would likely suit you! It measures 24’’ x 24’’ x 48’’, the ideal size for a fully grown ball python. It is also available in a slightly smaller size. The glass frontage will allow light to get in, but will ensure a relatively low level of ambient light for your pet snake.
- Pros: large, affordable, well insulated, free of harmful materials, thick sturdy wood.
- Cons: heavy!
But of course there are many more. A quick online search will produce plenty of results! If you’re in any doubt, ask your vet what they recommend.
What is the ideal temperature for ball pythons?
Ball pythons are a little more sensitive than other snakes. They require warmth – too cold and they will struggle to digest their food. They can also become very ill. Like all other pet snakes, ball pythons need a temperature (or thermal) gradient, i.e., warmer on one side of the terrarium, cooler on the other. This setup means they can always find a comfortable temperature.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Aim for an ambient temperature of about 82°F (28°C).
- Don’t let it drop below 75°F (24°C).
- Aim for 90°F (32°C) on one side, and around 75-78°F on the other.
- Control temperature by using an under-tank heater (UTH) or reptile heat mat under one third of the vivarium, and a thermostat to monitor temperatures.
- Ideally, use two thermometers simultaneously, to keep track of the temperature on each side.
To maintain the perfect temperature, there are a variety of gadgets you can use—thermostats, thermometers, heat lamps, head pads and heat tape. Here are some kit recommendations:
- iPower Digital Heat Mat Thermostat: affordable and accurate, this thermostat is pulse-proportional (PPT). This means it sends pulses of activity to the heat units to maintain a precise temperature.
- Zoo med Digital Thermometer: stick this to the inside of the cage on the cool end, and place the probe on the other, warmer, end. That way, you’ll have two temperature readings from one thermometer.
- OMAYKEY 75W Ceramic Heat Lamp: this is called a lamp, but it emits no light. These are made of solid ceramic elements, are simple to use and install, and can be used 24 hours a day as a primary heat source.
- Zilla Heat Pad: this sits under the cage and heats it from outside.
- Rock Heater: these are designed to go inside the vivarium and warm it internally. Note—this should not be your sole source of heat, but should instead accompany an external heat source, such as a heat pad or tape.
- Heat Strip / Tape: these come in narrow strips to allow for minute adjustments in heat placement. They fasten directly onto glass for optimum transfer, and are energy efficient.
Of course, you can find equivalents depending on your specific requirements by searching online.
Important to remember: most snakes do not need UVB, ball pythons included. This is because they are naturally nocturnal, so they have evolved to live without it. With the exception of a few rare pet snakes, UVB lights are unnecessary for captive snakes. If you do decide to use one, make sure it is 10-12 inches away from your snake, and change it every 6 months.
What is UVB? UVB stands for ultraviolet B light, and is a part of the sun’s natural light spectrum. Many reptiles require UVB to produce vitamin D3. However, for the most part, snakes do not require it, as the majority of species are nocturnal.
What is the ideal humidity for ball python?
Internal heat producers will affect the humidity of your tank. So it’s crucial to find a way of restoring the ambient humidity. Ball pythons enjoy humidity levels of 50-60%. A proper humidity level will facilitate shedding, which is an essential component of a snake’s life cycle!
Excessive humidity leads to the development of potentially fatal skin diseases; insufficient humidity inhibits shedding and results in dehydration. Too high or too low, and your snake is prone to respiratory infections.
So, how do you manage humidity? If the humidity level in the tank dips below 50% and remains that way for a day or two, here are some things you can do:
- Spray the inside with water—otherwise known as misting. This is an easy, temporary solution, but will need repeating unless you can find a more permanent fixture.
- Use a substrate that promotes humidity (more on this below), and make sure it is 3’’ deep.
- Give your snake a bigger water dish. This has got to be heavy enough not to tip over! If your snake is curled up in its water bowl, it may well need more humidity.
- Move the tank away from places where air circulates, like open windows, AC units or air vents.
- If your snake’s enclosure has a mesh screen, place a damp towel over half of it—the half which contains the water bowl. This will lock in some of the humidity. Covering the whole screen will create too much humidity. You can use other materials too, but damp towels are always available!
- You can also add peat moss, or sphagnum moss, to your snake’s hide box.
In my second tip, I mentioned using a substrate which promotes humidity. What are some examples of good substrates for ball pythons?
What is the best substrate for ball python and why?
The substrate is the floor lining. It is an essential part of the enclosure setup. Ball pythons like humidity, so substrates which retain humidity are best. Here are some examples:
Aspen is an ideal substrate material for ball pythons. It retains moisture, encourages burrowing, and does not have an overpowering smell. The one downside is that it can become moldy if it becomes too wet – like if the water bowl is spilled. But as long as you watch out for that, you shouldn’t have any problems. Aspen is very popular.
Also great for burrowing and humidity retention, cypress is a solid alternative to aspen.
Lastly, natural coconut substrate performs well too. It retains moisture excellently, and is easy to handle. The downside is that it is a bit more expensive than the other two.
Avoid sand. It is cheap, but sand can get very messy, and your ball python may actually ingest it—not good! There are also cheaper options like carpet or paper towels. These are OK for hatchling and juvenile snakes, but not good for adults, as they do not allow the snake to burrow.
What accessories are required for ball python?
Your ball python enclosure can be as simple or elaborate as you want it to be. Just remember, the more you put in the cage, the more maintenance and cleaning you will have to do! Regular disinfection is vital in snake enclosures, so bear that in mind when decorating yours.
One accessory which is essential for the wellbeing of your pet ball python, however, is a good hide box—or two. Here’s one example. Ball pythons are timid, nocturnal and secretive. They appreciate and utilize hide spots on a regular basis, and will likely become distressed without one! I recommend placing one at each end of the enclosure—warm and cool. This way, your ball python doesn’t have to choose between security and ideal temperature.
You could even have a third hide box in the middle of the enclosure, with a higher humidity level. That way, your snake will have easily enough options!
Hide boxes can be bought online or in pet stores. Alternatively, you can improvise – clay flowerpots and plastic flowerpot trays can work just as well.
Also crucial is a water bowl. As I mentioned earlier, this should be heavy enough so that it can’t be tipped over by your snake! The larger the bowl, the more humidity it will produce. Change the water every few days, or twice a week. Here is a good example of a suitable water bowl for ball pythons.
Low-level branches, live plants or repurposed garden objects can add texture and depth to a snake’s enclosure. But bear in mind that these things can be difficult to sanitize.
As ball pythons are not climbers, they do not require things to climb up. That being said, they do appreciate something to explore.
How to clean and how often?
Spot cleaning is like what you do at home if you spill some pasta sauce, or if someone runs in with muddy shoes. You target the specific area. Spot cleaning should be done as necessary—for example, removal of snake feces and urates should occur as soon as possible. If your snake knocks over its water bowl, remove the sodden substrate and refill the bowl immediately.
A full clean, or deep clean, is exactly what it sounds like—a complete tear-down of the vivarium. This means removing all substrate and accessories and disinfecting the entire enclosure. To disinfect the tank, you can use a 5% bleach solution, or another similar product. Make sure to use a fragrance-free cleaning fluid.
Then, rinse the enclosure thoroughly with clean water, and allow it to dry completely before replacing everything. Perform this task every 30-60 days, or every 1-2 months.
If all this seems manageable to you, then you’re on your way to owning your first ball python. Congratulations! Here’s a recap of the basics of what you will need to look after your pet snake:
- A large vivarium (20-40 gallon)
- 2 or 3 hide boxes
- A 3’’ deep, humidity-retaining substrate, such as aspen, cypress or coconut
- A thermal gradient, achieved using a UTH or heat mat, or alternatives
- A PPH (pulse proportional thermostat) to use in conjunction with the above
- A hygrometer, to monitor humidity (keep above 50%)
- A bottom-heavy water bowl
Remember, ball pythons are solitary and secretive, and are therefore happiest living alone. They need quite specific conditions, which you need to work to maintain—humidity between 50 and 60%, temperature between 75 and 90°F. If conditions are kept at these ideal levels, your ball python could live up to 40 years!
If you have any experiences you’d like to share, please write them in the comments below! We love hearing about your stories, and learning from other snake owners’ experiences. Be sure to check back here for more essential guides on snakes and other reptiles. Until next time!