After bringing home your new ball python, do not handle for the first two weeks or until it is eating regularly.
Handle your snake at least 1-2x weekly, but no more than once daily. Snakes do not require social interaction for their mental health, but regular handling helps the snake stay tame and can be a good opportunity for exercise.
Hatchlings and young juveniles may require special patience, as they’re very defensive at this stage of life and will strike at anything. This can be intimidating, but don’t be discouraged — with persistence and gentleness, they will eventually see you as a friend.
Wash Your Hands First
When you want to remove your ball python from its enclosure, first wash your hands and scent them with hand sanitizer. This removes potentially harmful bacteria, viruses, or parasites from your hands, as well as makes your hands smell distinctly inedible. Ball pythons find prey with heat sensing and smell. If your (warm) hands smell like rat, animal, or anything else remotely appetizing, your pet may confuse you for food. (See “What if it bites??” below.)
How to Pick up a Snake
Once your hands are clean and smell like chemicals, use a paper towel roll to tap its head (gently). This lets the snake know that it’s time for handling — not food — and prevents potential accidents caused by a misunderstanding. Once the snake shows calm, slow tongue flicks, it is safe to pick it up. Pick it up with two hands, one behind the head and one supporting the rest of the body. NEVER pick up a snake by its tail — this can cause severe damage to their spine.
During handling, continue to support the snake’s body and use a loose grip to enable it to move freely. If the snake is moving in a direction you don’t want it to go, use your free hand to gently guide its head away. Avoid fast movements, as this can scare your snake.
Since snakes don’t have hands or feet to help them climb, they use their powerful muscles to wrap around objects for stability. During handling, your ball python will treat you like a tree, wrapping around your body, arms, etc. so it doesn’t fall. This is normal, not an assassination attempt.
Safety with Snakes
There is no such thing as an aggressive or malicious ball python — they simply do not have the brain development for such complex thought processes. But they do act on instinct, and they don’t know their own strength. To ensure safety, always supervise children when handling any kind of snake. This is as much for the snake’s safety as it is for the child’s. Keep the snake’s head away from your face, and don’t let it wrap around your neck. If it starts to loop around your neck, you can move the snake or place a hand between you and the snake to prevent it from tightening too far.
DO NOT Handle If…
Finally, don’t handle your python within 24-28 hours of a meal, as this can stress them out and lead to regurgitation, which is a traumatic experience that can lead to death. Also do not handle if the python’s eyes have turned blue and opaque. This means that your snake is “in shed,” and can’t see well, making them more jumpy than usual. If your ball python curls into a ball during handling, that means it’s stressed and wants to go back to where it feels safe. Respect those wishes.
What if it bites??
Ball pythons are unlikely to bite humans, but it’s likely that at some point or other it will attempt or even succeed at biting you. Bites usually happen for two reasons: 1) the snake confused you for food, or 2) the snake thought you were a threat. Ball pythons are not terribly smart, so expect to be bitten at some point, and don’t panic when it happens.
Don’t yank the snake off of you — this risks ripping out its teeth, which can give your pet a nasty infection. Ball python teeth are rear-facing, so pulling the snake toward you (rather than away, as your instincts will be telling you) should dislodge it. If that doesn’t work, pour cold water on the python’s face or use a little Listerine and it will release on its own. Treat the “wound” (it’s a series of pinpricks, really) with soap and water and you’ll be fine.
While there are many things worse than a ball python bite, I can’t say that I’d let them bite me for fun, either. (Read more about what to do in case of a snake bite here.)
What About Salmonella?
Contrary to popular belief, salmonella infection from reptiles is very rare, provided that you follow proper hygiene and husbandry protocols. Keep your snake’s terrarium clean, wash your hands thoroughly after each handling session, and you should never have a problem. More information on the relationship between salmonella and reptiles here.