Because ball pythons are reptiles, they are cold-blooded, and that means they rely on their environment for the heat needed to regulate their metabolism. If the temperatures or humidity is off, the snake may stop eating.
If you are using a heat gradient, the warm side should be between 88-90°F (31-32.5°C), and the cool side should be between 80-82°F (26.5-28°C). Ambient temps should be between 84-86°F (29-30°C).
Many ball python keepers are switching to an ambient heat system for this species, which appears to work as well or better than the previously-accepted gradient system. This simply requires keeping the enclosure consistently between 84-86°F (29-30°C). This is accomplished by heating the entire enclosure, rather than just one side.
There are a few ways to keep your ball python at the right temperature:
Heat pad: Many snake keepers use a heat pad as their heat source of choice, covering 1/3 to 1/2 of the terrarium’s floor space. Fluker’s and Ultratherm are the most popular, as well as mats designed for seed germination have also been used successfully. Avoid Zoo Med pads, as they’re too small for the advertised purpose.
Whichever you choose, keep in mind that heat pads have a nasty tendency to overheat, so make sure to buy one with an adjustable thermostat so you don’t accidentally burn your snake. The Herpstat Intro, Herpstat1, and VE-200 are all excellent quality thermostats capable of protecting multiple snakes at once — and the price reflects that. For regulating only one heat pad at a time, Jump Start and Vivosun offer fairly reliable thermostats at a low price.
Once you have your heat pad and thermostat set up, place the thermostat’s probe inside your ball python’s “warm” hide, resting on the substrate. If you are using an ambient heating system, either hide will work. By placing the probe on your snake’s level, you will know and be able to control exactly what temperature s/he is experiencing.
I made the mistake of using a heat pad sans thermostat once, and it not only warped the plastic tub, but also changed the color of the wood beneath. The snake was, luckily, safe, but I had unwittingly kept a major fire hazard in my reptile room during those months.
Heat tape: Commonly sold by Flex Watt, this is an interesting technology that works under the enclosure floor (like a heat pad) as a steady source of warmth for your snake. Also like heat pads, it comes with the risk of shorting out or overheating. Using a dimmer switch with this product is a must! Learn how to install and use heat tape here.
Radiant heat panel: These are generally preferred by experienced and/or large snake keepers. Heat panels are more expensive than heat pads, but they’re also more reliable for regulating temperature. And since heat panels are installed on the side rather than bottom, burn/fire risk is minimized. Heat panels can be purchased at Reptile Basics.
DO NOT USE HEAT ROCKS!
For some unfathomable reason, heat rocks are still on the market, recommended by pet stores as a “safe” source of heat for your snake. Though safety improvements have been made in recent years, they are still dangerous. Furthermore, they’re not a good choice for heating your enclosure, as it only warms the rock, not the surrounding air.
Whichever method of heating you use, the most accurate way to keep track of your terrarium temperature gradient is to use a temperature gun like the Etekcity Lasergrip 774. They’re reliable, fun to use, and inexpensive, so this piece of equipment is a must.
Ball pythons need some humidity to maintain proper respiratory health and to shed their skin correctly. A large water bowl in the enclosure and the right substrate should be able to keep it between 55-65%. Keep tabs on both temperature and humidity with a digital thermometer/hygrometer.
Also offer a warm, humid hide full of damp sphagnum moss. This gives the snake a means for regulating its own humidity needs, and works very well during shedding.
Ball pythons are native to warm, but not overly humid regions. In fact, too much humidity can be just as bad as too little. If you have a large water dish and a humid hide, you shouldn’t have to dampen the substrate to keep humidity in the right range.
PRO TIP: Do not mist! Although your first impulse to remedy low humidity may be to get out the spray bottle, wild ball pythons never get rained on in the wild because they’re cozy in their burrows. Humidity spikes like those caused by misting can actually make your ball python sick. Instead, use a large water bowl and damp substrate (if needed).