Are you worried that your ball python might bite you? Do you want to know more about your pet snake’s teeth?
One of the things that first-time owners of ball pythons often worry about is getting bitten by their snakes. But there is no reason to worry about ball python bites.
Ball pythons have teeth, but they don’t have fangs, and they do not produce venom.
The bite of a ball python, however, can be relatively painless or quite painful, depending on whether it is biting to defend itself or it’s biting to capture food.
Ball Pythons Have Up to 150 Teeth
A ball python has four rows of teeth in the top of its mouth, and two rows of teeth in the bottom of its mouth. Each row has 30 teeth, making a total of 150 teeth in all.
The teeth of a ball python are a lot like small fish hooks. They are about 1 cm (4/10 of an inch) long, curving backward.
These teeth are designed to hold prey in place so the snake can swallow it.
Once a snake has started swallowing its meal, it can’t let go without breaking its teeth.
The curvature of the ball python’s teeth forces a prey animal into its digestive tract with no chance of escape.
Feeding Bites Versus Defensive Bites
Ball pythons seem to know that once they bite into food, they have to go ahead and finish it.
That may be the reason a ball python’s warning bite, to let some human or some animal know it wants to be left alone, involves a lot fewer teeth than its bite for holding a prey animal in place to swallow it.
How and Why Ball Pythons Make Defensive Bites?
Ball pythons don’t see very well.
They don’t seem to be able to recognize colors other than red or blue, and they usually see those colors in animals that want to eat them.
If you are wearing blue jeans and a red T-shirt, and you put your ball python down on the floor to play with it, it may not be sure who you are.
Ball pythons are extremely nearsighted. They detect other animals by their heat signature.
In this scenario, when you stand over your ball python, it may think the equivalent of “Oh no! The biggest blue and red predator ever is standing over me, ready to kill and eat me.”
The snake won’t attack you, but it will let you know that you are scaring it.
It will stick its tongue out at you. It will hiss.
It probably won’t roll into a tight ball before it at least tries to give you a little nip to let you know it means business.
But it will try hissing and rearing back its head as if it were going to bite you first.
When ball pythons finally decide to make a warning strike, they don’t use all of their teeth. They turn their heads so only one to five teeth come in contact with your skin.
Sometimes a ball python bite does not even break the skin. Other times, it causes about as much damage as a pinprick.
It does not release any venom, or any substances that interfere with blood clotting. It almost never causes an allergic reaction, and when it does, it is not part of its defense.
Nipping at you can break off your snake’s tooth.
Obviously, nobody should want to be bitten by a snake.
But defensive bites you get when you are trying to handle or play with your ball python are more likely to harm your snake than they are to harm you.
Feeding Bites Are Different
Feeding bites from ball pythons are a lot more severe than defensive bites. That is because a ball python uses all of its teeth when it feeds.
A hungry ball python does not think before it strikes at food.
A python’s heart not only beats faster, but also gets larger when the snake eats. Its blood circulates four times faster than normal.
The ball python’s lungs take in up to five times as much air as normal. And the brain triggers changes so that it is ready to build new neurons as the prey animal is digested.
All of this means that when a ball python senses food, it is transformed from a sedentary creature to a predatory machine.
It is not going to let anything get in the way of its meal. It is going to use all of its teeth to hang on to its meal and swallow it.
This is a problem if it thinks that your fingers are its next meal. Or if it mistakenly bites another snake, or even its own tail.
How Feeding Bites by Ball Python Happen
Feeding bites are most likely to occur when a ball python is being fed outside of an enclosure.
The snake smells its food. It can’t see its meal, but its pit organs pick up the heat signature of the person about to feed it.
When the person feeding the snake is about 3 feet (a meter) away, the ball python becomes extremely excited.
This is the time when ball pythons are likely to literally bite the hands that feed them.
Because the ball python cannot let go (you remember that its teeth are curved backward), it is necessary to peel the python off human skin, breaking off many teeth in the process.
These bites can be quite painful. Because the snake eats the entire body of its prey, including the guts, it is possible to get an infection with E. coli or other bacteria from the bite.
Defensive bites may not even break the skin. On the other hand, feeding bites may require medical attention.
Fortunately, both kinds of bites are very rare, about one in a thousand feedings, and largely preventable.
How to Prevent Feeding Bites by Ball Python
The single most important thing you can do to prevent being bitten when you feed your ball python is this: Never feed your ball python from your bare hand.
Wear gloves when you feed your ball python by hand.
Even better, present your ball python with its meal by dangling the prey animal in front of it with metal tongs.
If you have more than one ball python, separate them before you feed them.
The ball python you feed first may not be a problem, but the ball pythons you feed later will have had time to get into a frenzied state from the scent of food.
If possible, use a second enclosure for feeding your snake.
That way, your ball python will not learn to expect food when you put your hand inside its enclosure. It will expect food when you put it in its feeding cage.
You will need to leave your ball python in its feeding cage long enough to digest its meal at the right temperature for digestion. Ball pythons cannot digest their food if the ambient temperature is too low.
The spider morph has a hereditary neurological condition that can cause serious feeding problems. These beautiful snakes have a notoriously bad aim when they are presented with a food animal.
Spider ball pythons may strike at the human feeding them, another snake in the same cage, or their own bodies.
Once they have bitten, they cannot let go. A spider morph may starve if it is not removed from its own tail, bitten at feeding time.
How to Prevent Defensive Bites by Ball Pythons
A ball python’s defensive bite is a slight nip that is its way of telling you “I want to be alone.”
A ball python that is not used to being picked up may strike at the person attempting to hold it. A ball python may be unhappy about changes to its cage, or getting a roommate for breeding purposes.
When you first get your ball python, it is important to desensitize it to human contact.
Try just placing your gloved hand in your ball python’s terrarium. Don’t try to touch it.
Just leave your hand, protected by a glove, in the enclosure so your snake can learn you are not dangerous.
Do this a few times, and then practice touching your snake. Don’t try to pick it up. Just touch it harmlessly for 15 to 30 seconds, and then take your hand out of the cage and close the lid.
Next, try picking up your snake. Don’t use the same moves predatory animals make. Approach your ball python from the side, not from above.
Approach your ball python slowly, not with sudden moves.
When you get your ball python outside its enclosure for the first time, hold it firmly but gently. You don’t have to squeeze it to keep it from escaping. You can let it slink through your fingers or wrap itself around your arm.
Over 20 to 30 desensitization sessions, your snake will become comfortable being held. But you will always need to avoid sudden moves to keep it from biting at you.
First Aid for Ball Python Bites?
Defensive bites are usually treated with nothing more than washing the skin with soap and water.
Feeding bites may require washing, antiseptic, and bandaging for a few days. If you are concerned about infection, see your doctor. Your snake’s teeth will grow back.
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