The Ball Python Behavior (Common & Unusual) and Health

Captive-bred ball pythons are generally very healthy, hardy and resilient animals. Learn everything you need to know about the ball python behavior & health in our guide:

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The typical health and behavior of a species are important considerations for anyone seeking a pet reptile.

Species that commonly experience serious health issues or problematic behaviors, for example, are poor choices for beginners. Instead, reptile-keeping novices should stick to species that are usually healthy and – if you’ll pardon the anthropomorphism – happy.

Ball pythons clearly fall into the latter category. At least, captive-bred ball pythons do; wild-caught ball pythons are an entirely different matter.

Relatively early in my snake-keeping career, I had the “opportunity” to work with thousands of imported ball pythons (in those days, captive-bred ball pythons weren’t widely available).

Almost every single one was suffering from more than one health problem. Tick infestations, respiratory infections, poor sheds, and infected wounds were common. None of them wanted to eat for at least a month, and some would refuse food for nearly a year. Needless to say, these snakes were very difficult to maintain, and they’d make horrible pets for most first-time owners.

But captive-bred ball pythons are generally very healthy, hardy and resilient animals, and they’re among the more docile snakes available to hobbyists. We’ll talk about the health and behavior of ball pythons in greater detail below, so that you’ll know what to expect from your new pet.

> Further Reading: The Complete Ball Python Care Sheet

Basic Ball Python Behavior and Body Language

You’ll notice your ball pythons performing a few common behaviors over time, including those explained below.

  • Calm ball pythons move about slowly but purposefully.
  • Ball pythons often flick their tongues while moving about to learn about their surroundings.
  • Hungry ball pythons often lay motionlessly, with their head poised and ready to strike. They may also prowl slowly around the habitat seeking prey.
  • When frightened, ball pythons may withdraw their head into an “S-coil,” hiss, flee or roll into a ball.
  • Although it is somewhat rare, ball pythons can bite if they feel threatened or mistake your hand for prey.

Common Ball Python Behaviors: A Deeper Look

We’ll examine a few of the more noteworthy behaviors ball pythons exhibit below.

Shedding

Ball pythons, like all other snakes, shed their skin periodically. This can occur as often as once every three or four weeks, or as rarely as once or twice per year, depending on the size, age, and health of the individual.

Proper sheds should come off in one long piece. But unfortunately, ball pythons who are sick, mite infested or dehydrated often shed in multiple pieces or fail to shed completely. This can cause long-term health problems in some cases, so it is important to take steps to eliminate the problem.

Accordingly, you’ll need to help your snake remove the retained skin and rectify the problem that caused it. You can usually help a ball python free himself of the retained skin by soaking him in a bit of room-temperature water for an hour or two.

Be sure that the water is only deep enough to cover your snake’s back – he shouldn’t have to swim to keep his head above water.

After soaking him, you can likely pull the retained skin off with gentle pressure. Do not force any scales off – especially those located around the eyes or face. If any stubborn spots remain, soak your snake again the next day and try again. If this isn’t effective, contact your vet and seek his or her assistance.

ball python mouth

Biting

Biting is the behavior that often elicits the most attention from new keepers. This is understandable – nobody wants to be bitten by a snake.

However, it is important to note that ball python bites are rarely very painful, nor are they likely to cause much damage. Typically, they’ll cause a few minor breaks in the skin, which will ooze a trickle of blood.

Bites rarely require much more first aid than simple soap and water. However, if the bite displays any signs of infection (redness, swelling, etc.), contact your doctor. It is also important to feel the wound carefully to ensure no teeth were left in your skin.

> Further Reading: Does a Ball Python Bite Hurt (and Why Would Your Pet Bite)?

Handling Your Ball Pythons: Basics, Tips, and Tricks

Below, we’ll discuss the best way to handle your ball python, and then we’ll share a few tips and tricks that’ll likely make it easier and more enjoyable to do so.

Basic Ball Python Handling Procedure

Although you’ll certainly need to adjust to different circumstances and individuals, the best way to handle your ball python is as follows:

  1. Open the habitat and touch your snake gently on the back. This will help you avoid startling him if he’s sleeping (it is essentially impossible to tell if your snake is just sitting still or sleeping, as they lack eyelids).
  2. Place your fingers under his body gently and lift him off the cage floor quickly and decisively. Don’t stare at him for 10 minutes trying to gather your nerve; that’ll only make him nervous. Just pick him up.
  3. Once lifted, let your snake crawl freely around your hands and arms. Be sure to support him but avoid gripping his body tightly – that tends to make snakes feel threatened.
  4. After about 5 to 10 minutes (or you are done examining him, if that was your reason for picking him up in the first place), gently return him to his habitat and close the enclosure.
  5. Wash your hands with soap and warm water.

ball python head

Tips and Tricks

Try to follow the procedure outlined above, but from time to time, you may find the following tips helpful:

  • Learn to recognize your snake’s body language. Typically, ball pythons will communicate discomfort or fear long before they resort to biting. They’ll often do this by tensing their muscles, becoming more rigid, hissing or acting “jumpy.” If you note these signs, return your pet to his enclosure and leave him alone.
  • If you must pick up a defensive ball python, use the “paper towel trick.” By simply covering your snake with a paper towel (or small hand towel, if your snake is large), you’ll find that most snakes calm down significantly. You can then pick up the entire package – snake and towel – and move him as necessary.
  • A snake hook (or an improvised version thereof) can make some snakes feel more comfortable. After lifting the snake with the hook, you may be able to transfer him to your hand without a problem. Otherwise, you can simply use the hook to move him as necessary.
  • Don’t handle your snake too often or for too long. Excessive handling will usually stress your snake out, so keep handling sessions brief. Also, don’t bring your snake to public places, as this is stressful to the snake and often upsetting to those who are not comfortable with snakes. This type of behavior only hurts the hobby.
  • Because they’re nocturnal, ball pythons are generally easier to handle during the day. You’ll often find that your ball python will be more alert at night, and they’ll generally be less tolerant of handling during such times.

Caution: Don’t Handle Your Ball Python After Eating

Note that you should never handle your ball python who’s recently eaten. Doing so may cause him to regurgitate his last meal. This not only creates a thoroughly disgusting mess, but it is also stressful for the snake. It’s also a waste of money, as that rodent will now be useless.

As a general rule, you should wait for at least 24 and preferably 48 hours after feeding your snake to handle him. This assumes that any bulge created by the meal has shrunk. If you can still detect a food bulge, do not handle your snake.

> Further Reading: The Ball Python Diet

ball python substrate

Illness and Disease: Signs of a Sick Ball Python

Some of the most common health problems that afflict ball pythons are explained below. These are certainly not all of the possible diseases and conditions that may threaten your pet, but they deserve the most attention.

Respiratory Infections

Any snake can suffer from a respiratory infection, but snakes that hail from tropical areas – including ball pythons – are often especially susceptible to them. Because snakes cannot cough, they have great difficulty expelling the fluid which can accumulate in their respiratory tract. This means that a simple “chest cold” can quickly prove fatal in snakes.

A few of the most common symptoms of respiratory infections in ball pythons include:

  • Blowing bubbles from the nostrils or mouth
  • Unusual breathing sounds
  • Drooling
  • Labored breathing
  • Food refusal
  • Staying near the heat source more often than usual

If you notice your ball python exhibiting any of these symptoms, contact your vet and schedule an appointment at once. While ball pythons occasionally recover from extremely mild respiratory infections without veterinary treatment, most will require medications to help combat the infection.

Obesity

Obesity can cause health problems for ball pythons, so it is important to keep your snake at the proper body weight. While experienced keepers are often able to accurately assess body condition, it is often difficult for novices to do so. Accordingly, beginners should visit their vet regularly (perhaps once per year) to ensure that their snake is in good health.

Some of the most notable locations in which ball pythons store fat include the rear portion of the head and the sides of the tail base. Additionally, the spine and ribs can provide clues to the snake’s body condition. You should be able to feel your snake’s ribs, but they should not be visible in most cases.

Obesity takes a long time to treat in snakes – they don’t need very many calories in the first place. Accordingly, it is important to avoid the problem entirely.

> Further Reading: The Ball Python Diet

Eye Infections

A lot of new owners worry that their new ball python has an eye infection, but eye infections aren’t terribly common in snakes. I can only remember caring for one snake out of thousands that had a legitimate eye infection – and that was a water snake, not a ball python.

However, ball pythons do frequently experience two other eye-related problems:

  • The eyes of dehydrated ball pythons will often dimple.
  • Shedding difficulties can cause a snake to retain the scale covering its eye.

Unfortunately, it can be very difficult for beginners to distinguish between these two problems. So, the best thing to do is simply visit the veterinarian if you notice anything unusual about your ball python’s eye. Neither of these issues is terribly difficult for your vet to treat – he or she can likely remove a retained scale or help you rehydrate your pet.

Mites

The snake mite is a tiny arthropod that feeds on the blood of snakes. And unfortunately, they are both extremely common and extremely difficult to eradicate – particularly for snake-keeping novices.

Individually, mites don’t represent much of a problem, although they’re probably irritating to the snake. But, when their numbers climb into the dozens, hundreds or thousands, they can cause serious physical stress. Death from mites is rare, but it is possible.

Mites essentially look like a moving speck of black pepper. They’re easy to spot against a white enclosure wall, but they’re very difficult to see on the dark portions of a snake’s body.

The easiest place to see them on your snake will be his ventral side, especially the portion under the chin (check in the crease running down the center of your snake’s lower jaw).

Eradicating mites is complicated because the mature females are constantly leaving your snake, moving into the environment and depositing eggs. So, you’ll often have to utilize special medications that will kill the next generation of mites, or you’ll need to go to great lengths to eliminate the mites on your snake and those living in the environment.

In either case, beginners are wise to immediately seek veterinary assistance when confronted with mites.

> Further Reading: The Ball Python Habitat

Mouth Rot

Mouth rot is a bit of a catch-all term for various infections that manifest in the mouth of a snake. It is pretty disgusting – it can cause your snake’s mouth to bleed, ooze cheesy material, loose teeth or worse. But if caught quickly, you’ll usually be able to stop the problem.

Mouth rot can be caused by a variety of different things, so you’ll need to work with your vet to treat the animal. Just be sure that you do so quickly, as this problem can progress drastically in a short period of time.

ball python terrarium

Take Care!

Ball pythons are usually healthy and easy-going animals. You just have to start with a healthy, captive-bred individual and then provide the proper habitat, diet, and care. Just be observant and look out for the symptoms of illness mentioned above. This way, you’ll be able to act quickly and give your snake the best chance of recovery.

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Ben Team

Ben Team

Ben is a life-long environmental educator who writes about the natural world. He’s kept and bred a diverse array of reptiles and amphibians over the last three decades, but he’s always been particularly fond of snakes in the genus Morelia and monitor lizards. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia with his beautiful wife and spoiled-rotten Rottweiler.

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24 thoughts on “The Ball Python Behavior (Common & Unusual) and Health”

  1. Ok my ball python was in feed mode you know following the scent quickly out her hide and she went into the S striking pose, and I could barely notice, but her head was vibrating, ever so slightly. It really scared me and she also didn’t eat that night! I need help! Send me an email or something

    1. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on here, but it just sounds like your snake was exhibiting normal hunting behaviors. Snakes sometimes get a bit “physically tense” (for lack of a better phrase) right before eating, and you may interpret this as vibrating.

      I wouldn’t worry about it, and I’d just try to feed him/her again on your next scheduled feeding day.

      Let us know how it goes!

    2. Kim Poundstone

      So I notice my ball python sometimes breathes a little heavy, he has no signs of struggling to breath, no mouth gaping or bubbles from the nose. I’m curious if it is him getting stressed by myself coming over to monitor him and his temperatures. He is pretty docile, a little skittish at times but he is very active. His temperature is 90 degrees in the hot spot, around 75 degrees on the cool side, he does go to and from both ends. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. I’d also like to add he is going through the process of his first shed with me since I got him in May.

      1. Hey, Kim. Unusual breathing is a pretty common issue for snakes that are in a shed cycle. As long as he’s not blowing bubbles or producing any fluid from his nose or mouth, and his breathing returns to normal after he sheds, I wouldn’t worry.
        However, if the breathing issues continue, or you start to see a discharge, go ahead and get to your vet.
        Best of luck!

        1. My ball python “hugs” my hand/fingers very tightly like she is constricting but only with her head/jawline. What is this behavior? I’ve never experienced thos one with my previous ball

          1. Hey, Jenna.

            It’s hard to tell exactly what these crazy serpents are doing sometimes! She may just be trying to get a better grip on your hand, or it may be just a byproduct of the way she’s crawling around.
            True constricting behavior is pretty serious business; it’s not a casual “hug.” So, I wouldn’t worry about it one way or the other.

            Thanks for your question!

  2. How will a ball python act if he dont have enough room in his cage to streach and move about. I was given a ball python unexpectedly,and it was something I was definitely going to save. And I have only had her a few days I made her home a small fish tank I had until I get payed and am able to buy her something to fit her needs. It just seems her bahavior is sad, I believe well Ibknow she dont have enough room to stretch and move. So can you tell me any signs I should look for, or is it harming her to be in a small tank. It will only be another 3 or 4 days until I’m able to get her proper housing,I’m just worried and want the best for her so any tips you can give me will be very appreciated. Thank you

    1. Hey there. Snakes certainly need habitats that allow them to stretch out, explore, thermoregulate and obtain exercise, but this is a long-term concern. Don’t worry about habitat size over the short term. In fact, it may actually help the snake feel a bit more secure while he is dealing with all of the changes going on in his life.

      As long as your snake has enough room to lay comfortably and change position as necessary, I wouldn’t worry about habitat size if you’ll be getting him a proper habitat in a few days.

      Also, in case this is your first snake, it is important to understand that many snakes (particularly ball pythons) aren’t especially active. They spend a lot of their lives just sitting there (they probably sleep a lot, but it’s difficult to tell because they have no eyelids).
      It’s easy for beginners to think their snake is sick or sad, but snakes just don’t do very much. Also, your ball python is nocturnal, so he’ll likely be most active at night, when you’re not watching him.

      Best of luck! Keep us updated!

  3. Lucy is 15 years old, she has not gone into hiding for two days now and has been basking under the lamps. Should I be concerned I have not seen her do this since we have had her. She has been in the family since a baby. We have had her maybe about 4 months now. During that time she seems to be exhibiting happy behavior. This is new what I have described above. She is not balled up either. She is stretched out and has been.

    1. Hi, Diana. So sorry that we missed your comment earlier. I realize that this advice probably won’t help you now, but it may help someone else in the future. Let us know how things went with your snake!

      As for the outstretched body posture, that could mean a variety of things.

      Snakes suffering from respiratory infections often exhibit strange postures (it can help them breathe more easily), but it could also be associated with reproductive events like ovulation. And then sometimes, snakes just lay in a stretched-out position because, well, they just do.

      It’s really impossible to be sure based off the info provided. If your snake is exhibiting any symptoms of illness, I’d head to the vet ASAP. Otherwise, I’d recommend just watching her for a day or two. It doesn’t necessarily sound like a problem, but you’re correct to seek help whenever your snake does anything weird.

      Best of luck!

  4. I have just recently bought my first ball python she was captive bread by a local breeder and i have red alot and wanted to educate myself to the fullest as this was going to be my first snake it has been a very fun journey learning all the stuff I’ve read and have found snakes in general to be quite fascinating however some of the things ive read in other places and even here dont exactly match the behavior of my snake like at all……for example i know pythons in general are pretty nice in nature for the most part and as u stated before they bite you will know they are uncomfortable…….mine doesn’t seem to get uncomfortable by just about anything young children other pets in the house like a dog she has not snapped drew back into the s form or nothing no matter what she has encountered since ive had her. I also have read that even if they dont bite or scare to easy none like their head touched or messed with and will usually atleast yank their head back quick in fear however mine seems to act like a puppy loves her head rubbed nudges me to do so even and when around my neck nudges my chin rubs her head against me and i read on here it isnt good to handle your snake for too long or too much but seems to me my snake cant wait to get out of her enclosure and to be held or handled……as soon as i out her in her cage she seems tonact just like my bearded dragon i had for years did and seems to want back out enjoys the attention she gets and wants it more than to just lay there in her enclosure…..she doesn’t seem to stress outside or even in public like at all and i was wandering since ive heard so many different things that dont describe my snake like at all could it be a sign that something is wrong with her she seems completely healthy no mites no scale rot mouth rot or respiratory issues at all however if handling her too much can cause any of these health issues should i not handle her even though she acts like everything is more ok that way and seems. To prefer being handled or up my around my neck all the time and keeps acting like she only gets upset if i put her in her enclosure is this any kinda sign something may be not.ok. with her because her behaviour doesnt seem to match all ive read….. even if was for the better….51 q still her behavior doesn’t add up should this be a. reason to be concerned or does this give you any kind of.clue that there is something wrong and what it could be or do i just have a rare case of a very tame mild mannered snake that likes attention?

    1. Hey, Joe.
      First of all, I applaud the amount of time and effort you’re putting into your pet. You seem like you’re really trying to provide your pet with a wonderful life, and you’re being observant about his behavior.

      Ball pythons are often quite docile. But they’re all individuals with slightly different personalities. You may have just ended up with one that is particularly chill.

      As long as the habitat is set up properly, your snake is eating well, and he’s not exhibiting any of the signs we mention above (nostril discharge, etc.), he’s probably fine. But it probably wouldn’t hurt to head to the vet to double check everything anyway.

      I would caution you that snakes don’t always exhibit obvious signs of stress, and it does sound like you may be handling him quite a bit. It’s also important that we don’t misinterpret our pets’ behaviors — I doubt your snake “wants” to be handled, although he may very well tolerate it.

      Point being, I would encourage you to restrict handling sessions to about 10 minutes or so a day, and it’s probably a good idea to give him several “off days” a week, when you leave him completely alone. And obviously, give him at least 24 to 48 hours after feeding to digest before you handle him.

      Thanks for reading, and we wish you the best of luck with your pet!

  5. Patricia Ward

    Hi i have a question have u ever had ur python crawling on your arm abd put their eye and face close to your skin and open their mouth twice? My husband had this happen tonight she did bit him but it was not normal us?

    1. Hi, Patricia. It sounds like your husband’s hands/arms smelled like food. Just make sure you always wash your hands after handling or petting any other critters.
      Thanks for reading!

  6. My boyfriend and I rescued 2 ball pythons who were deathly sick and the vet only gave them 50/50 chance. After a month of injections every day, they are finally back to their healthy selves. I have done a lot of research before, and still am doing a lot. They have been in the same tank for almost 5 years now the guy says and they constantly look for each other, when we have them out they always have to be touching. It’s so weird but cute! We have them in a 75 gallon fish tank because that’s what they came with, a big hide that they can both fit in, we tried putting two in there but they would always end up in the same hide anyways so we figured if we took one out it would give them more room, and a bigger water dish because Noodle likes to swim, along with a big stick they can climb but they don’t seem to really use it. Noodle sometimes rubs her snoot on the glass for a few minutes or on the water dish, she isn’t shedding, she just shed a month ago and there is nothing left stuck on her. Nopie when he goes back in the tank, tries to get out and that has just recently started, he also got done shedding a month/month and a half ago. They are VERY curious and constantly doing something whether it’s climbing behind the hut, pushing the bedding away, or laying in the water dish…they seem content and happy and eat once a week. Some behaviors though lately have me questioning if everything we are doing is OK. The vet says we are doing a great job but I’m afraid some of these signs means they are stressed and I am unsure about what to do about it.

    I guess my main questions are;
    1. Do you think we should separate them even though they do look for each other?
    2. Instead of separating them do you think they just need a bigger tank? They are about 3 1/2 feet long and have plenty of room to sprawl out if they want.
    3. Should we put anything else in the tank with them? I read that two sides of a glass enclosure should be covered so they don’t feel like they are too out there, one side is pushed up against the wall though.

    Also, we are going on vacation at the end of the month and were going to take them to a friends house so he could watch them. He does have python experience, but they aren’t going to be in THEIR enclosure for a week, they are going to be in something different while at this guys house. Do you think it would be best to keep them in THEIR tank or is it OK to send them away for a week?

    They are my kids and I love them so much already, I only want what’s best for them.

    Thanks for your time!

    1. Hey, Madison.

      On behalf of your snakes, I want to thank you for trying so hard to give them a high quality of life. Kudos to you and your boyfriend!
      To answer your questions:

      1) I would recommend separating them. Snakes are not really social animals, and although it may appear that they are trying to “spend time with each other,” it is more likely that they are just finding the same spot cozy. Ball pythons are almost completely solitary (aside from breeding attempts) in the wild. Separate housing just makes it easier to care for them, and it’ll help prevent accidents at feeding time (which can be very dangerous).

      2) I always advocate for large enclosures, but a 75-gallon tank is actually pretty spacious. I’d still recommend separating them though.

      3) Covering some of the glass can help keep their stress level down and make them feel more secure. However, your snakes seem like they’re doing well, eating regularly, and using their hide space when they want to, so I wouldn’t worry about covering the tank.

      4) Yes – if possible, I would keep them in “their” tank. This will help prevent them from becoming stressed.

      You sound like you are doing very well! Just keep up the good work and continue to learn all you can!
      Thanks for reading.

  7. PLEASE HELP!!

    I have a 9 year old ball python (got him at 3 months old), and he has always been the healthiest guy imaginable. The last few months however he has been SUPER active in his tank almost non stop, culminating last night when he BROKE OUT OF HIS TANK (it was locked and secure, although I will admit the lid isn’t in the best shape due to years of wear and tear).

    His substrate is clean, his tank is worm, he always has water, his weight is perfect, what is going on???? please help!!!

    1. Hey, Michelle.
      Sorry it took us so long to respond! I hope you’ll still find this helpful.

      Assuming that your snake is actually healthy, hyperactivity is probably caused by one of three things:

      1. The cage is too hot. Like, dangerously hot. So, double-check your temperatures.
      2. Your snake is a male that’s thinking about lady pythons. There’s not much you can do about this besides let him breed, or just wait until his urge passes.
      3. Your snake is stressed because of some perceived threat. Do you have a cat that likes to sit in front of the enclosure? Do children tap on the enclosure all day long? Make sure you address any potential sources of stress and ensure that he has a secure hiding space.

      Best of luck!

  8. i have a male Royal ball python and would like to breed it to get an albino or different colors or morphs will it be okay if i breed two royals together, and will i be able to get nice morphs or albinos from the breed ?

    1. Hi there, Michael.
      If you are prepared to care for the resulting offspring, there’s no reason you couldn’t breed ball (royal) pythons. If your male is a normal-looking animal, you’d have to breed him to a snake that has a co-dominant or incomplete dominant trait to produce morphs in the first generation.
      You’d have to engage in a two-generation project to use a normal ball python to produce any recessive trait (such as albinos).
      Best of luck!

  9. Hello Ben! My significant and I recently just bought a ball python from a local Petsmart, and was wondering if you could ease my worries a bit. As I would think being nocturnal of course the BP would be very active, out and about for the most part, not to mention we did just get him Im sure he’s getting a feel for his new digs. However, my concern is when it comes to his adventures, his full extention to reach the top of his enclosure(he likes to fit himself inbetween the small indention where the screen fits onto the tank- I say he’s testing the strength for a breakout!)he happens to lose his grip and falls over. I worry that he may hurt himself due to witnessing him slip and bump his head on the side of the glass, will he be alright?

    1. Hey, Ronni.

      Sorry it took us so long to respond – I hope we can still provide some help.
      I think I’m familiar with the behavior your describing. He certainly could injure himself like this, but I wouldn’t think it is terribly likely that he would. I’d recommend trying to move any branches or cage furniture out of the way in case he does fall, and I may consider switching to a “fluffier” substrate, but I wouldn’t lose sleep over it.

      Thanks for reading!

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