Wild animals rarely eat consistently, and they have evolved to survive this. While some keepers prefer to use nature’s inconsistency as the template for their feeding schedule, I do not believe that this practice is in the best interest of the animal. There is a significant gap between “surviving” and “thriving,” and I believe consistent, reliable access to prey and supervised nutrition is in the best interest of promoting the animal’s welfare in captivity. However, the feeding chart below is meant as a guideline. 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 — learn how to properly thaw frozen prey items here.
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.
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).
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.
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
- 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.
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
…as long as they’re not losing too much weight (more than 10% of body weight) and otherwise healthy, which you can monitor with a kitchen scale. 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.”
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.
PRO TIP: When buying your ball python, ask the breeder if it is 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 can 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.