Boa Constrictors and Pythons: Care in Captivity

Congratulations on welcoming a new Boa or Python to your family. We here at Four Seasons Animal Hospital want to help you with your new friend, starting with the basics...

Did you know that there are more than 2,700 species of snakes all found on every continent except Antarctica. They live in deserts, forests, oceans, streams, and lakes. Many snakes are ground dwellers, and some live underground. Others dwell in trees, and still others spend most of their time in water.

Natural History

Boas

The group of snakes called “boas” consist of 39 species in 12 genera. The most commonly encountered and captive bred boa species is the Boa constrictor. The Boa constrictor is a New World species that can be found from Mexico down into Argentina. Boa constrictors are most at home above ground in small bushes or trees, where they lie coiled, awaiting the passing of a possible meal. The maximum length for the boa constrictor is usually about seven to eight feet in captivity, but wild specimens may reach more than 12 feet.

Pythons

Pythons are found in Africa, Australia, and Asia under conditions that range from rain forest to desert. Some species are primarily ground dwellers, but most climb and can be found in bushes and trees. The larger species are often found near water and are strong swimmers. Pythons include some of the world’s largest snakes. Burmese and reticulated pythons can reach 20 feet or more. However not all pythons are giants; the frequently kept ball python rarely exceeds five feet.

Captive Requirements

Housing

The proper care and feeding of your pet snake is essential to its health. The most common cause of medical problems in pet reptiles is inadequate husbandry. 


  • Temperature— The immune system of reptiles is temperature-dependent. Therefore a cold snake is likely to become an ill snake. Free-ranging boas and pythons attain their preferred body temperature by moving between sun and shade. Captive snakes should be kept in a warm room and provided a thermal gradient within their cage. A thermal gradient allows the animal to move from warmer to cooler areas. Within their temperature range, each species has a preferred optimum temperature zone. For most boas and pythons, a day temperature in the mid-80s is preferred. At night, most boas and pythons may be cooled down to 70 to 75 F.

  • Water— Fresh water should be present at all times. The water bowl should be large enough for the snake to completely immerse its body, and heavy enough that the animal will not tip it over.

  • Humidity— Most species do well with a relative humidity of 50 to70%. The presence of a large water bowl as well as a weekly spritzing with warm water will sustain cage humidity. At no time should the cage become soaked.

  • Cage dimensions— Snakes up to 4 feet in length may be maintained in a ten gallon aquarium or similar sized cage. Larger animals need larger cages. As a general rule, the length of the cage should be equal to or longer than the snake.

  • Substrate— Newspaper, butcher paper, or paper towels are recommended for lining the bottom of your snake’s enclosure. Clay compounds such as kitty litter, wood shavings, corncob bedding, sawdust, peagravel, and sand are not recommended since they may be accidentally ingested.

  • Lid— Adequate ventilation must be provided, however since snakes can force their way through even small cracks, all hinges and joints must be tightly fitted. Lids should not have rough surfaces since snakes may injure their snouts when exploring or rubbing on these surfaces.


Cage Furniture:

Hidebox—Most reptiles are secretive by nature and require a hiding place. Plastic hide boxes are commercially available. Crockery such as terracotta pottery, shoebox, half log, PVC piping, and cardboard rolls may all be used depending on the size of your pet. The absence of a hide box is considered a chronic stressor which increases the risk of illness.

Branch—Many specimens will use a branch if provided, and smaller species may remain coiled on branches much of the time. It is best to use hardwoods such as oak, maple, or hickory. Avoid aromatic softwoods such as cedar, spruce, or pine.

A flat-bottomed, smooth rock should be present. When preparing to shed, a snake will rub its snout against a rock or log . This will enable the snake to begin its shed in a normal matter. A normal shed occurs in one piece from head to tail.

Disinfection—Dilute bleach (1 part bleach with 10 to 30 parts water) works well, but must be rinsed thoroughly. Reptiles are highly susceptible to the toxic effects of pine oil cleaners so products such as Lysol or PineSol should not be used.

Unless the goal is breeding, individual cages are ideal to prevent accidents during feeding and food refusal by shy specimens.

Feeding

Snakes should be fed every one to four weeks depending on the size of the individual snake. Smaller snakes should be fed more frequently, and larger snakes less frequently. When feeding a snake, always pre-kill the food. Live prey may inflict serious bites and scratches.

Shedding

As a reptile grows, its old skin become too tight and worn. When ready to shed you will noticed your snake’s eyes turn a milky blue over the course of several days, and the body color will start to dull and develop a whitish sheen. Once the eyes have cleared, your snake is ready to shed.

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