Wild animals rarely eat consistently, and they have evolved to survive this. However there is a significant gap between “surviving” and “thriving,” and so as snake keepers we must find a happy medium between respecting the way an animal’s body has evolved and providing adequate nutrition. I believe consistent, reliable access to prey and supervised nutrition is in the best interest of promoting the animal’s welfare in captivity. The key to making sure you’re feeding your ball python correctly is to keep tabs on its physical condition and adjust meal size/frequency accordingly. (See “How do you know if a ball python is eating too much?” later on this page.)
Ball pythons are obligate carnivores, which means they need to eat whole animals in order to get the right nutrition. Frozen prey is generally considered optimal because it’s convenient and unlikely to injure your pet during the feeding process.
There are several ways you can buy frozen rodents:
- Online (Perfect Prey and Layne Labs are my favorite)
- At your local small pet store (avoid Petco/Petsmart/etc, as their rodents tend to be low quality)
- At reptile expos
- From a local breeder
Most snake keepers prefer to buy their rodents in bulk, since shipping costs are expensive (since they’re frozen, they must be shipped overnight) and buying one rat a week can be inconvenient. Save even more money by combining orders with a friend and splitting the shipping cost.
If you are not sure what size prey you should buy online, look for feeders that are 10-15% of your ball python’s body weight. So for example, if your ball python weighs 400g, then you would buy feeders that weigh between 40-60g.
Do not buy prey from chain pet stores like Petco or Petsmart; they have occasional salmonella outbreaks that can infect your snake. Instead, buy from independent local pet shops, or buy in bulk from reputable breeders (this saves money, too).
What else will ball pythons eat?
Offering a variety of prey items (as well as a variety of sizes) is a good way to make sure that your BP is getting a spectrum of nutrition:
- African soft-furred rats
- Young guinea pigs
- Young rabbits
- Quail chicks
You may be surprised to find birds on the list, but ball pythons do hunt and consume birds in the wild (particularly males, which live a surprisingly arboreal lifestyle). Not all ball pythons may be on board with constantly-changing prey, though, so find what works for your snake as an individual.
If the thought of feeding whole animals to your snake makes you squeamish, a company called Reptilinks offers an alternative that contains all the nutrition your snake needs without the rodent cuteness. But they carry the risk of your ball python refusing to eat.
How to prepare frozen prey
If you are using frozen-thawed prey (recommended), thaw it out in the fridge the night before feeding day. This allows it to thaw slowly in a cold environment, which discourages bacterial growth, same as how you’re supposed to thaw frozen meat. Then about 15-30 minutes before feeding, stick the prey in a BPA-free plastic bag like a Ziploc and submerge in warm, almost hot, water. The body temperature of a mouse is similar to a human’s, so you’ll want the prey to be about 98-100°F before offering it to your snake. You can check the temperature with your temp gun.
Is feeding live okay?
Rodents are notorious for injuring captive snakes, sometimes fatally — but only in cases where the feeder was left in the snake’s cage instead of being supervised. While frozen/thawed is still best, the goal is to make sure your python eats regularly. If live prey is the only way to accomplish that, just keep a close eye on the interaction and remove the feeder if it isn’t eaten within 15-30 minutes.
Do not stun live feeders. Not only is this an inhumane practice, but if/when the feeder wakes up, it may go into “oh my gosh I’m going to die” mode and start attacking your pet.
Do ball pythons need vitamin supplements?
Although as obligate carnivores ball pythons should get all of the nutrition they need from the animals they eat, the nutrition provided by feeder rodents is often inferior to the nutrition provided by the prey that ball pythons would consume in the wild. Some studies have revealed that commercially-bred feeder rodents are deficient in crucial nutrients like vitamin D, which in turn negatively affects the health of the snakes that eat them.
There is a risk of developing nutrient deficiency over time even when you buy your prey items from the best breeders. So it helps to occasionally lightly dust prey items with an all-in-one calcium and vitamin supplement to help fill in the gaps in your ball python’s diet. Use a calcium supplement that contains vitamin D if you are not using UVB lighting.
Here are the best supplements we’ve found that you can use for your ball python:
Due to the natural decay of certain vitamin ingredients, supplements should be replaced every 6 months.
Should you feed outside of the enclosure or inside?
Inside! Many snake keepers claim that feeding a snake inside its enclosure will create a phenomenon known as “cage aggression.” This should not be a problem as long as the keeper uses a paper towel roll or snake hook to alert the snake before handling. Ball pythons are ambush predators, which means that they don’t go hunting for their prey — they wait for it to come to them. Removing a ball python from its enclosure for feedings only stresses the snake out and often results in refusing to eat even when they’re hungry.
It’s okay for your ball python to skip meals
In the wild, adult ball pythons eat only an average of 10x/year, and even snakes in the most naturalistic enclosures with the best care will still “fast,” usually during cooler times of the year. Young adult females around 1000g are particularly notorious for this — a phenomenon called “the Wall.” Males also tend to fast for a limited amount of time during breeding season.
As long as your snake isn’t losing too much weight (more than 10% of body weight) and appears otherwise healthy, there’s no reason to freak out. You can monitor his/her weight with a digital kitchen scale. Weigh weekly for best results.
How do you know if a ball python is eating too much?
It’s difficult to tell whether a snake is obese, but not impossible. An imaginary cross-section of a healthy ball python would look a bit like a melted Hershey Kiss, round on the sides with a gentle peak at the top (the spine). A prominent spine means that the snake isn’t eating enough, and an invisible spine means that the snake needs to eat less.
Obesity is a rampant problem among pet snakes, and especially in ball pythons. For more information and a helpful visual, go here.
What is erratic feeding, and is it a good idea?
Erratic feeding is a feeding “schedule” with no schedule at all. There is no feeding schedule in the wild, which means that ball pythons need to be opportunistic predators if they want to eat. That means active hunting and not refusing what they manage to find. When ball pythons are fed erratically in captivity, they demonstrate a stronger feeding response and tend to be more active because they’re “hunting.” You can feed erratically by randomizing the type of prey offered, the size (within reason), how it is presented (live vs F/T), time of day, time between feedings, tongs vs hiding for the snake to find, etc.
Of course, the snake should still receive food regularly. This is not justification for starvation.
Will erratic feeding make your snake more aggressive? If you are concerned that changing your ball python’s schedule will make it more likely to bite or otherwise treat you like food, train it to associate a light touch from a paper towel roll or snake hook with handling time — not food time. Ball pythons are smart enough to know the difference and act accordingly.
PRO TIP: When buying your ball python, ask the breeder if it’s a good eater!
Aside from regulating humidity, a large water bowl gives your snake a place to soak, as well as (obviously) stay hydrated. Keep filled with clean water and change every 2-3 days. Naturally, if it gets soiled before then, scrub the bowl with a bleach solution and replace water immediately.
Note: There is a common belief that distilled or softened water is better for reptiles than tap (hard) water. This is false. While it is better to use these for misting because they don’t leave mineral residue, the lack of minerals creates osmotic imbalance within the snakes body after ingestion. As a result, the body has to give away its own minerals and electrolytes to restore balance. Over time, this may actually lead to dehydration, even when the snake is drinking regularly.
For more information, I recommend reading Water Treatment Precautions: Hard vs Softened (Filtered) Water.